EIGHTY per cent of everything was on a boat before it was here, which is something that nobody really remembers.”
Theatre developer and director Eszter Némethi is explaining the reason why her company’s new play, Utopia Ltd, is being staged in Cork Boat Club in Blackrock.
“The port is the vehicle somehow, or the backdrop,” says Némethi, who is Hungarian, but moved to Ireland in 2005 and volunteered for Cork’s Capital of Culture before studying at UCC. “It’s really how we are connected, because everything comes to us from somewhere. And that’s also an undercurrent that runs underneath the story of Roger Casement: trade, boats, the movement of things and people.”
Makeshift Ensemble Theatre Company’s new off-site play has been over four years in the making, and began with an interest in Casement’s extraordinary life. Although during this centenary year Casement is being celebrated as an Irish nationalist, his role as the “father of 20th-century human rights investigations” uncovered some of the worst imperialist atrocities perpetrated in the Belgian Congo and against the Putumayo Indians in Peru.
But Némethi was never interested in a historical re-enactment of scenes from Casement’s life, instead preferring to use themes that emerge from Casement’s biography to explore modern relationships to issues like activism and personal responsibility.
From hiring a shipping container and using it to ask members of the public what their vision of an ideal world was, and what they were doing to achieve it, to putting out a call for activists “with a connection to the sea” from the countries Casement is associated with, Makeshift Ensemble’s approach to devising Utopia Ltd has been unconventional and inquisitive, and invested with the energy and ethos that Némethi, 29, and her companions bring to all their undertakings. Since their foundation in 2010, they have produced four plays and are also the organisers of Quarter Block Party, an artist-led festival in North Main Street and South Main Street, Cork.
“We realised that if we wanted to make the kind of theatre we were interested in, we would have to take some responsibility for ourselves in the city and also for our audience, so we developed Quarter Block Party to bring work that we’re interested in, bring an audience and make a viable ecology in Cork.”
But Utopia Ltd, with a cast of five non-performers from Belgium, Cobh, the Democratic Republic of Congo, and South Africa, is aiming to explore more than local themes: “You can trace Casement’s life and ask some pretty big questions about the world because he changed history in five countries, which is pretty impressive for one guy, particularly in the early 1900s when travel and connections were not so easy. At a certain point you also think, oh, it could be about colonialism, or sexuality. He’s this guy who at some point started to question the legacy of imperialism and that’s still something to think about today on a global perspective.”
The play, which contains some filmed elements, presents questions both to the audience and its cast, Némethi says. “The ‘Utopia’ in the title is the idealism and saying, ‘Ok, we’re going to change the world,’ which is a hilarious sentence to say, especially out loud,” she says. “We are super-idealistic and we’re ok with not being cynical, but at the same time we are deconstructing the idea, and that’s where the “Ltd” part comes in.”
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