Ah…Irish drama. Such beautiful verse and dialogue, such darkly comic writing with a hint of mysticism, such a propensity to take human hopes and shatter the feck out of them.
Segue way into ‘The New Electric Ballroom’.
Enda Walsh’s play explores the lives of three Irish women in a remote fishing village and their fishmonger visitor, Patsy, and the perilous enterprise of giving into the first stages of love and the consequences of dashed hopes and dreams, where shame and disappointment define your destiny.
Many countries have a distinctive style of writing, whether thematically or stylistically. Irish drama, from my own ignorant viewpoint, seems to give its characters a glimpse into the light, a glimmer of happiness before the clouds roll in and piss all over it and in the process, allows its audience to laugh at the absurd, heighten the mundane and create a sense of the supernatural. I love it and here I claim my own dark sense of humour and Irish heritage and, like most Australians, there is an appreciation of the comic and poetic expression of these themes.
It is because of the richness of language and cadence of delivery that it takes a very skilled and experienced director and cast to be able to communicate the complexities of the drama. Director Kate Gaul didn’t completely master the play as evidenced in the first 30 minutes but it did get there in the end.
The rapid fire dialogue of Breda (Odile Le Clezio) and Ada (Jane Phegan) as they hug the door with their backs to the audience in the opening scene means the dialogue all rolls into one blur and you spend some time playing catch up. In fact the first half hour lacks clarity- either in the rhythm of the play or in the direction of the narrative such as when Ada tells us about the events that transpired when she was riding back from work and starts on the initial patterns of storytelling, we as an audience are expecting to head in one direction but the writer cleverly manipulates and diverts our focus as he sees fit. None of these stories are random and in fact they become beautiful metaphors for what is to come and I feel like Gaul didn’t quite connect all the dots in planting these ideas so we don’t lose the coherency of the threads.
But once you understand the pattern of the play- that ‘light bulb’ moment, you can then sit back and enjoy what is to come. And for that I think you can thank Justin Smith as Patsy. Smith brings this play thoroughly to life- his energy, skill, focus and hypnotic vocals meant that for a brief pocket in time, we all fell in love with him, just as writer and director would hope. By setting him up like this, when they pull out the rug we really feel the loss.
The revelations of the second half redeem any confusion from the first half and for this reason I didn’t mind having to work as an audience member in figuring out what was going on, although I will add a little more control in the choices of the first 30 minutes would have made this play a must see. Tom Bannerman's design enhances this dark insular world and I do love the old school or retro choices that suggest these are characters trapped in their past.
I do hope ‘The New Electric Ballroom’ pulls a profit for Siren Theatre Company under the patronage of the Griffin Independent season. It is a good play directed and performed by a generally good cast.
And as I mentioned in my review of ‘Terminus’, when is Australian writing going to get the funding and development it needs so we can consistently shape and refine our own poetic and theatrical national, social and cultural agenda?