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Dublin Theatre Festival 2016 review – ‘Irish artists lead the charge’

Brokentalkers' The Circus Animals' Desertion at the Dublin Theatre Festival. Photo: Futoshi Sakauchi

Since its first programme in 1957 when police stormed a production of Tennessee Williams’ The Rose Tattoo, the Dublin Theatre Festival has shown certain defiance.  Nowadays, where some festival programmers might feel the pressure to helicopter in the giants of world theatre, in Dublin, the Irish are leading the pack.

The 2016 festival kicks off with These Rooms (★★★★), a thrilling co-production between immersive theatre impresarios ANU and genre-bouncing dance company CoisCeim. We arrive in a building refitted as a Dublin pub from 1966, where wary figures watch the 50-year anniversary of the Rising. David Bolger’s choreography suggests an unsettling history of alcoholism and trauma. Its source is a civilian massacre from 1916 that the Irish state has declined to investigate.

Directors Bolger and Louise Lowe set that pain reverberating. The building we’re in is effectively haunted. Explore further and you find performers recreating frightening glimpses of attacks up close. The many rooms, designed in miraculous detail by Owen Boss, are transformed into scenes of homes raided and ransacked. 1916, we realise, is still unresolved, and this aching co-production speaks of those who were left without answers as they staggered into the new republic.

Dance is a driving force in this year’s festival, and Swan Lake/Loch na hEala (★★★★★by Michael Keegan-Dolan is one of the best. This new version of Tchaikovsky’s ballet is set in the Irish midlands. Hack leaders run riot, a young man’s depression goes unaddressed, and a young woman becomes a victim of clerical abuse. In Ireland’s past decade of agonising reports, it’s impossible to ignore that survivors of abuse are transformed entirely, or as Keegan-Dolan devastatingly portrays, changed from white swan to black. But this stirring production is also about the healing process.

After the unresolved past and agonising present, what about the future? Ominous portrayals of world destruction are to be found throughout this year’s festival. Brokentalkers, Ireland’s fast-acting political theatre company, look to one of Ireland’s visionaries for answers: WB Yeats. Its fascinating new dance-theatre production The Circus Animals’ Desertion (★★★★) is inspired by the poet’s A Vision, a strange document folding astrology and history into a precocious theory: there are infinite timelines.

That explains why directors Feidlim Cannon and Gary Keegan’s strange carousel of symbols is familiar yet different. The staging, populated by dancers and musicians in cat masks, plummets into the horrors of history. From the crucifixion of Christ to 20th century fascism, sacrifice and slaughter are spun to appear as uncannily new. It makes for a surreal portrayal of radicalisation, sent as if from on high, to a world on the brink.

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Irish artists lead the charge in a landmark programme battling past, present and future.