sat 18/05/2024

The New Electric Ballroom, Gate Theatre, Dublin review - fantasy and memory hauntingly interwoven | reviews, news & interviews

The New Electric Ballroom, Gate Theatre, Dublin review - fantasy and memory hauntingly interwoven

The New Electric Ballroom, Gate Theatre, Dublin review - fantasy and memory hauntingly interwoven

Enda Walsh's second drama on now about ritualised isolation is mesmerising

Jane Brennan as Clara and Barbara Brennan as Breda

Commuting between London and Dublin has its fascinations.10 days ago, I saw for the first time at the Southwark Playhouse’s Elephant Theatre, heart in mouth during most of it, Enda Walsh’s The Walworth Farce, his first Edinburgh Festival Fringe First winner in 2007. Then to Dublin’s Gate Theatre last night for its immediate successor in the Walsh canon and 2008 Edinburgh triumph, The New Electric Ballroom.

You could say these possible masterpieces form a diptych, though in an ideal world the substantial dramas would be played on alternating nights, never on the same evening, and despite riffs on the Irish love of endless talk, the connections aren’t in place or character. What we do have in each case is an hermetically sealed threesome, including two young brothers in the first play, two old sisters in the second, acting out a past – true or fantasy – into which an outsider is incorporated. Scene from The New Electric BallroomHere, at home in an Irish fishing town, siblings Breda and Clara reminisce about erotic entanglements and disappointments surrounding their teenage excursions to the escapist world of the New Electric Ballroom. Walsh adds layers of metatheatre, though: they’re being schooled for their lines by the younger woman of the house, Ada (Orla Fitzgerald pictured above on the right, with Barbara and Jane Brennan as Breda and Clara) , who’s barely coping with frustrations of her own. Into their daily lives with the changing of the tides comes fish-seller Patsy, longing for tenderness but pursued by a dangerous mind.

While The Walworth Farce pursues new layers of let’s-make-a-play madness, The New Electric Ballroom is about ritual repetition – as Lampedusa’s The Leopard has it, “everything must change so that everything can stay the same”. The possibility of a sea-change renders this a putative Shakespearean late romance to the tragicomedy of the previous play. Unease and a sense of liberation alternate in the last third of the drama. Scene from The New Electric BallroomAs with the review of The Walworth Farce, no spoilers, but it has to be stated that Marty Rea as Patsy rises to mesmerising heights of speech and song in those later stages (Rea pictured above with Jane Brennan). But Walsh also gives everyone monologues great and small. Orla Fitzgerald as Ada realises the lyrical possibilities which finally reach her, while it’s a real coup to have real-life sister actors Barbara and Jane Brennan etching contrasts – also great and small – between dominating Breda and more cautious Clara. Kat Heath’s set and above all costumes achieve the crucial magic and strangeness in perfect harmony with Ciaran Bagnall’s chameleonic lighting, all at the service of Emma Jordan’s production.

A total work of art, in short: it may make you uncomfortable, and you may even wonder what the hell’s going on at moments, but that's what great theatre ought to do. And meanwhile in Dublin, there's a handsome-looking production of Molière's Tartuffe over at the Abbey Theatre, in a new version by Frank McGuinness which has all the rhyming-couplet pith, and keeps the length, of the original, and with several outstanding performances; excellent exhibitions; and of course the staggeringly high-level Irish National Opera production of Der Rosenkavalier. Ireland's arts, at least, seem to be thriving, with proper support right now.

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