On the same night his new play The Same opened in Cork, Enda Walsh’s Arlington began a renewal at the Abbey, a first outing at the national theatre for a man who has, over the last several of years, become arguably Irish theatre’s leading brand.
To describe Arlington as a series of stories told by characters in confined spaces is to risk making it sound more like “the same” too — the usual (if effective) Walsh formula. But that would not do justice to the step forward this represents for Walsh the theatre-maker. He directs here too, and, in that role, has recruited the raw and wrenching choreography of Emma Martin, the stark design of Jack Phelan and Jamie Vartan, and the music of Teho Teardo to create a piece that achieves a striking, category- defying completeness of vision and mood.
We begin with Charlie Murphy’s Isla, who has been confined in a tower, like many others in a dystopian, totalitarian world. When she’s not dancing to the Ramones, she recites stories from her past, monitored by Young Man, played with an early Woody Allen-ish nerdy nervousness by Hugh O’Conor. In a third section, O’Conor will be the one incarcerated, tormented by an Olwen Fouere voiceover in a harrowing sequence. In between comes a furious, hypnotic dance by Oona Doherty — an expressionistic exploration of the characters’ dilemma.
The three elements are not so much seamless as cumulative in their effect. They allow the work to shimmer on the edge of literalism, alluding to the pressing political questions of our moment, without being simply a political play.
Arlington embodies anger and loss and grief. It is an intelligent work, but doesn’t spare you the occasional punch in the gut.
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