THEATREclub’s The Family
So this is a very seriously backdated post. There have been some technical difficulties, meaning I haven’t been able to upload any posts to the blog, and this, my very first post, should have gone up sometime around the end of January. So apologies for the delay with it. And hello! I’ve decided to start with this post, although director Grace Dyas and the rest of the talented people from THEATREclub have long since evacuated the Project, because I think that what they do deserves to be talked about, even if it is somewhat after the event. Their latest show, The Family, is all about creating a space for discussion, about elements of life rarely tackled face-on in day-to-day Irish life. This discussion was continued by a series of post-show panel chats organised by Veronica Dyas.
Essentially, what THEATREclub are tackling, both in their shows and in events like the post-show chats, is the policy of ‘least said, soonest mended’ so prevalent in Ireland; the skirting of problems, the willingness to cover things up and the disastrous consequences this can have, across a spectrum of areas. We need only look at Irish politics, religion, and economy to see that there is a very reasonable case to be made for more transparency in our culture. And there is a kind of knock-on effect that a culture of secrecy can have: Irish people are notoriously bad at talking seriously about things. There is a tendancy to brush things off, to joke about them, or to pretend that nothing is happening at all which, while in some situations the most sensible approach, can in others have seriously damaging effects.
The failure of communication was, in many ways, the most important element in The Family: this failure is shown to have several possible roots, and many possible effects, but throughout the play the action was boiled down to the fact that the characters could not find a way of saying what they wanted to say. One scene that remained with me over the days and weeks since I saw the show involved Gemma Collins following Gerard Kelly into the kitchen, insisting that they needed to talk, and meeting with evasion, verging on hostility. While she made cups of tea, clearly agitated and upset, everything about his stance and voice was making it impossible for her to say whatever it was she wanted to, and when he finally gave in, aggressively insisting: “I’m listening to you now, say it,” she broke down in the face of this hostility, because of the impossibility of reaching out to someone who refuses to listen.
This was explored through several disjointed depictions of the relationships between the seven characters. They would chatter light-heartedly and wittily, tease each other playfully, but as the play continued, tensions ramped up, without any real possibility of resolution. The only sesnse of release offered to the audience was in the solo dance scenes of Shane Byrne and Gerard Kelly, dream-like and graceful on Byrne’s part, cathartic but furious and self-conscious on Kelly’s. The frustration being vented on both parts was imparted perfectly by the two actors, whose characters shared an understanding of dance as representative of a possible means of self-expression, and yet were characteristically unable to articulate quite what it was that it meant to them, or how it made them feel.
The disjointed nature of The Family lent itself well to an exploration of unresolved tensions, and the desperate paradox of having to love family members even while they make your life impossible. It hopped between months, while loosely following the chronology of a day in the life of a family, and hopped also between atmospheres, moods, without much follow-through. The power dynamic shifted rapidly from scene to scene, each character assuming then swapping various roles and attitudes traditionally associated with certain positions within the family structure, without explanation.
This was in some senses a weakness of the show. The lack of specification of each character’s role within the family, and the complete absence of any narrative structure or chronology, made for an all-too-successful invocation of frustration; the vagueness that allowed the play to explore what was left unsaid also made for a somewhat frustrating experience at times. The snap in lights and shift in action and mood that would occur when a character clapped their hands could be very effective, but could also feel at points like a cop-out, a device that was a little too easy. Perhaps it is inevitable that a play which seeks to explore the impossibility of communication, of resolution, runs the risk of being reduced to a series of vignettes with no real resolution of its own.
However, THEATREclub, as with Heroin, are addressing things that need to be out in the open, bringing things up as topics of conversation, and treating them in a skillful, funny, sometimes heartbreaking way. The Family was a highly atmospheric piece of theatre, with some impressively attuned acting. It was also well staged, with effective use of audio-visual live feed, and clever use of space. The premise of the design was aptly a bright, shiny 1950s aesthetic, with the women in their tea-dresses and the men in slicked-back hair and suits, or leather jackets, living in their white picket fence house with its pastel kitchen.
The illusion of home-sweet-home proves ultimately as fragile as the plywood set: in one particularly meta-theatrical moment, during a scene where the kitchen of the set was being disassembled and taken away, Brian Bennett turned to a distressed Gemma Collins, and smirking, said: “You know it’s all false, don’t you?” giving the plywood wall a knock. Her response was that on the contrary, it was all very real. She went on to specify that she knows the set is false, and that they are in front of an audience, but she is very clear that none of it is a game. This is perhaps reflective of THEATREclub’s manifesto: The Family is not a conventional play, nor is it ‘play’ of any kind; the problems presented in it are real ones, to which real solutions will need to be found. And the first step to identifying these problems, to finding these solutions, is to make a space in which it’s possible to talk about them. To appeal to people by addressing universal issues. As THEATREclub states: “The Family is a play about your family;” the lack of boundary, the lack of specificity, testifies to this attempt to create something universal, to which everyone can relate. When dealing with a structure as fundamental and yet as fluid as the family, this is ambitious indeed, and I think that the attempt, however successful, is invaluable in terms of opening peoples’ minds, and opening possibilities for discussion
As an extension of this attempt to open discussion, THEATREclub hosted six post-show panel discussions around the table of the set’s pastel kitchen, around the issues of: representations of family on the Irish stage, women’s role in Irish families, addiction, economic crisis, masculinity, and the conception of an ideal Ireland. There was a wide variety of guest speakers, from a spectrum of professions and backgrounds, and the talks afforded a chance to mull over the play and what it was attempting to do, while looking at Irish society in a broader context.
During one of these talks, entitled “The Irish People Are Being Slowly Boiled: A Discussion on Cuts to our Communities,” I found myself slightly overwhelmed. It was late on a Tuesday night, and talk had centred around social injustice, leading me to that question of how to justify funding for theatre productions when people don’t have basic necessities of life. It’s not something I can answer easily: to set it up in direct opposition like that is fairly simplistic. But it led me to question yet again what I see as the role of the arts, and to consider what kind of a society we would be left with if the arts were stripped away. Opinions are among the slowest things to change in a society, and a major role of theatre should be to challenge received opinions; to push people, to ask questions, including uncomfortable ones, and ultimately to force a society to examine itself. This function is particularly valuable in a society such as our own in Ireland at the moment, which is, ahem, in a terrible state of chassis. THEATREclub are attempting to do just that, and should be applauded.