Presenting a piece of theatre about the violent and sexual abuse of children incarcerated in Catholic residential care institutions is a challenge on many levels given the repulsive nature of the subject matter. But Brokentalkers theatre company has found a way of telling Ireland’s shameful story that is theatrically innovative and so multi-faceted that the audience was riveted.
The show combines choreography with live music, film footage and recorded testimonies from people subjected to gross ill treatment in these institutions. Five performers wear uniforms and flesh-coloured masks that make them look distorted and alien, their individuality wiped out. They never speak but sometimes move in unison, in a regimented way. Other times, these figures are like puppets, manipulated and tossed around, reflecting the powerlessness of the captive children.
The ‘blue boy’ in the title refers to the rumour of the ghost of an infant who died at Artane Industrial School. We are told this by co-director of the drama, Gary Keegan, who grew up living close to the Dublin institution. Keegan’s grandfather, an undertaker, used to have to go to Artane to measure corpses for coffin-fitting purposes. He was upset after seeing the bruised body of a deceased infant.
Instruments of torture are listed in litany style, from electric cords to coat hangers, as well as bunches of nettles and golf clubs. The sound of chalk grating on a blackboard is exaggerated. The voice of a woman, incarcerated at Goldenbridge in the 1960s, describes how she and her contemporaries had to make rosary beads. They were so hungry that they would try to eat the beads.
Another testimony is from a man who talks of eating stolen cattle feed and the crumbs from the priests’ breakfast trays. Some kids even ate glue.
There is RTÉ footage of a tribute to the late Brother Joseph O’Connor, founder of the Artane Boys’ Band who was subsequently accused of abuse. He comes across as smug and a proud ‘disciplinarian.’
At times the masked actors meant it was difficult to connect with the show, but it is still essential viewing.
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