Heroin, directed by Grace Dyas (THEATREClub)
@Smock Alley Theatre, Oct 4th-9th 2011 (Ulster Bank Dublin Theatre Festival)
Heroin was first staged as part of ABSOLUT Fringe 2010, and shown again in March of this year in axis:ballymun Arts Centre. It’s essentially an overview of an epidemic – a history of the social, political and economic factors that contributed to the spread of heroin addiction in Ireland.
The cast erect the set around themselves throughout the play, as though building themselves into a simple but restrictive frame of reference. Very soon it becomes hard to recollect that there was ever a “before”: the dingy flat they now occupy was surely always there, and will always be there, just like an addiction. The intensity of the cast’s interactions ebbs and flows, from a gentle indifference to one another’s existence to a desperate physical struggle, all grasping hands and gritted teeth. They talk over one another, evoking the clamour of eager, bitter, guilty, pleading, angry voices in a troubled mind. The repetition, the anxiety, the bargaining; perhaps it is impossible to truly identify with an addict’s experience unless you’ve been there, but if you’ve ever felt desperation, grief, any self-destructive impulse, you’ll feel enough here to make you very uneasy.
The first time someone shoots up in front of the audience, the scene is given all the time and space and silence it needs to impress itself as a solemn ritual, like Holy Communion. Insights into one person’s mottled personal history are given wider context as each passing decade is given a morbid Reeling-In-The-Years obituary, and somehow, with all the bright lights and spit-flecked urgency, it seems not only plausible but inevitable that the Irish football team’s performance in the 1990 World Cup led directly to this man injecting into the webbing between his toes. The show is not about logic, there’s no logical solution because it’s not a logical problem. It’s not about the simple ratio of detox beds to junkies (and what the hell is a “junkie” anyway? Most drug users recoil from the term, it’s dehumanising). It’s a wide-ranging, deep-rooted problem that requires all of us, all of society, to engage with it and demand its resolution.
There can be something uncomfortable about a production like this that deals with difficult social issues. The rawness of the subject matter aside, there is is the queasy sense that it relies on exploiting the people it claims to represent, the realities of whose lives seem a world away from this theatre and the well-heeled people attending. It’s the moral question of whether you can ever really tell someone else’s story. By processing your reading of someone else’s experience, and turning into a product that you then sell to the public, are you raising awareness or merely commodifying pain?
Ultimately, most of us would agree that art should attempt to address social problems, whether or not the artist is speaking from direct personal experience. But of course it depends how you do it, what your goals are, and whether you attain them. Good intentions alone are not enough.
This particular play was developed with the involvement and support of staff and clients of the Rialto Community Drug Team, and rehearsed in St. Andrew’s Community Centre, which houses, amongst other things, a methadone clinic, meditation classes and counselling services. The structure of the show – the timeline of drug addiction in this country – is drawn from a talk by Graham Ryall, one of the Drug Team members, who took part in a post-show discussion panel this week with writer/director Grace Dyas and THEATREclub co-founder Shane Byrne.
When THEATREclub first approached the Rialto Drug Team with the intention of researching this piece, the staff were understandably reticent. The people who use their services, already so vulnerable, are constantly under scrutiny by reporters, government bodies, researchers and filmmakers, who despite what their intentions may be, do very little good in return for their intrusions. It took a lot of time and persistence for Grace and Shane to build relationships with the staff and clients and secure their trust. Feedback from staff and former users who have seen the show has been generally positive; not surprisingly, some found the experience unpleasantly intense. That, more than anything a critic could say, speaks to the truth of the production.
I talked to Shane Byrne briefly about the show, and asked him what he hoped the show would achieve. He said simply that he hoped people would have a bit more empathy. There are so many misconceptions about heroin and the people that use it. People don’t recognise the strength it takes to recover; many of the things that people assume are the result of drug abuse may in fact be the effect of treatment. The services that recovering patients need go beyond mere detox treatment: they need emotional support, a social network, a way out of poverty, a connection that makes them feel a part of the wider society, and a way to make their voices heard. Much of the dialogue in the show is drawn directly from conversations with clients of Rialto Community Drug Team; this is their story.
Info and booking here.