Any performance that alludes to the events of one day in Dublin in 1904 is evoking James Joyce’s Ulysses. But the Corn Exchange, Dublin, are twinning the idea of an odyssey through that fair city with the opening, later that same year, of the Abbey, Ireland’s National Theatre and the first state subsidised producing house in our islands.
Dublin by Lamplight, first seen at the Project Arts Centre in Dublin in November 2004, was devised by writer Michael West in collaboration with the actors and the company’s director, Annie Ryan. The show visited the Edinburgh Festival fringe in 2005, where it enjoyed a great success at the Traverse and is now revived for a British tour, going on to Brighton, Liverpool, Salford and Newcastle after its Riverside stint.
I saw the play in Edinburgh and it left me cold. I had a similar reaction at Riverside. The style is an immensely irritating “Irish” commedia dell’arte, six actors capering in white painted face masks while the pianist and composer Conor Linehan accompanies them with a mixture of aimless doodles and melodramatic flourishes at the piano.
The actors play 30 roles between them. The chief characters are a fraught theatre manager, Willy Hayes (Louis Lovett), and his politically explosive younger brother, Frank (Fergal McElherron); a temperamental leading actress and suffragette, Eva St John (Karen Egan); a starry-eyed costume mistress, Maggie (Janet Moran), who seizes her chance in the spotlight when Eva is thrown into prison; and an extravagant, Wildean actor in a mauve suit and floppy ginger wig, Martyn Wallace (Mark O'Halloran).
None of these correspond exactly to the Abbey founding fathers who included W B Yeats, Lady Gregory, the Fay brothers and the actress Sara Allgood. Whereas the Abbey opened on 27 December with a triple bill, Willy’s first play is an absurd Celtic twilight hotchpotch called “The Wooing of Emer” with an appearance by the mythic king Cuchulain (who did figure in Yeats’ On Baile’s Strand, one of the triple bill) and an exhortation to the men of Ireland to seize their moment and rise up against the English.
Some of them are doing that outside, as the king is paying a state visit. (The real-life benefactress of the Abbey, the tea heiress Annie Horniman, withdrew her support when, a few years later, the Abbey refused to mark the death of King Edward VII in any way.) The Ulysses side of things comes out in the tumbling journey through the city and a series of minor mishaps involving a lost watch and first night panic. There’s no direct relationship to Joyce’s book beyond a vaguely comparable brothel scene and a starkly etched vignette in the Palace bar.
The style only matches the content in the second act, where the posturing on stage becomes funny and the gesticulation of the actors seems to reflect the hollowness of what they are actually saying. The plot becomes as confused as an all-night session in the Flowing Tide, with a series of drunken outbursts, political clampdowns and the abandonment of a pregnant Maggie by the dockside. For all its bluff and bluster, though, Dublin by Lamplight remains stuck in a theatrical back alley, noisy and attention-seeking but dead behind the eyes like a leering Archie Rice.