“It’s not about the plays, it’s about the building!” implores Willy Hayes as his plans to establish the Irish National Theatre of Ireland lie in tatters around him as events spin out of control in Michael West’s wonderful play.
It’s a line typical of the play’s versatile, allusive humour; a joke which, in 2004, poked fun at the tiresome debate on relocating the Abbey Theatre. Now, 13 years later, the in-joke is in-house, at the Abbey itself, still at the same address after all that Celtic Tiger hubris.
But for all its fiendish cleverness, its glorious send-ups of Wilde, Yeats, the Celtic Revival, O’Casey, Joyce, and Fenianism, West’s play, set in an alternative 1904, is no mere exercise in literary wit. It’s a generous, human tragi-comedy, with a vibrancy that is irresistible.
Dublin by Lamplight is also the most characteristic expression of director Annie Ryan’s particular take on the commedia dell’arte style. Here, the characters, with faces painted in masks, speak directly to us, and narrate their own actions. The opportunities for physical comedy and improvisation are many and exquisite, tripping along to Conor Linehan’s live piano accompaniment.
But there is darkness too, a shift in tone from the comic to the tragic that Ryan and company handle with arguably even greater deftness than before.
From the original production, Karen Egan resurrects her pompous yet sincere Maud Gonne-inspired Eva, while Paul Reid, as a dandyish actor, fills the substantial shoes of Mark O’Halloran. The new additions Caitriona Ennis, Colin Campbell and Gus McDonagh don’t miss a beat. Together, they form a cast of Dubliners from across class lines and backgrounds, united in the enterprise of staging The Wooing of Emer, by the impecunious would-be playwright and impresario Hayes.
Cork actor Louis Lovett reprises the role of Hayes, and how kind the years have been to him. Since 2004, he has honed his skills to become a supreme theatre artist. His performance is a joyous combination of wit, timing, grace and control, at all times channeling the sense of serious play that defines his work as a children’s performer.
This is a magical piece of theatre, that reminds you of all that’s best about this most collaborative of arts. The only pity is that audiences have mere weeks, rather than months, to see it.
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