Straymaker presents ‘Elsewhere’ at the Abbey Theatre, Dublin, on 19 November 2021

A large audience gathers, and the sense of expectation is palpable. There’s been a lot of buzz about Elsewhere, the new opera devised and composed by Michael Gallen, and here we are. The Abbey Theatre doesn’t go in for stage curtains, safety or otherwise. You walk in, and there’s the set. In this case we see the institutional signifiers of a bed, a bath, some chairs, and then a raised section for the players, like a musicians’ gallery of old, come to rest on the ground. The back wall of the stage, normally obscured, is plain to see. The space is open.

There is silence, then sounds begin to gather. A female figure on stage, dressed as a patient, sings unaccompanied, asking for silence. She is later called Celine; the singers (listed below) are not identified by roles in the programme, so she must remain uncredited; in any case, her role is not exclusive to one artist. Her lone voice is soon joined by disembodied voices from off stage, lending an unexpected choral texture. Demands and questions soon fill the air. What is the cure for poverty, for oppression?

Clockwise (L to R): Fearghal Curtis, Sarah Shine, Sinéad O’Kelly, Amy Ní Fhearraigh, Daire Halpin

To explain: the setting is over a century ago, in a mental hospital known as the Monaghan Lunatic Asylum, one of so many places in Ireland where people were put away. The difference here is that, in 1919, staff went on strike over pay and conditions, raised the Red Flag and declared themselves an independent soviet, all without (apparently) disrupting patient care. Improving mental health for all was, indeed, part of the point, and there’s the scenario: Celine’s perspective in close focus, contextualising the broader sense of the dispute happening around her.

Daire Halpin

It says a lot about the fraught relationship with truth in the public sphere that documentary theatre has become so popular. Is this yarn from 1919 Monaghan a documentary opera? Well, yes and no. There are no documents to draw on, for a start. Anyone expecting a sequential account of those days in Monaghan is asking the unanswerable. Instead, what Gallen and his team have created (and this is very much a collaborative work) is more imaginative. After all, much of the story – the questions, the dreams and nightmares, the objectification and oppression – continues into the present. Creating an academic exercise about an obscure past event would simply re-bury it.

The time period, combined with the whiff of real communism, is a gift for the director (Tom Creed) and designers. We see text-book references to the theatricality of Bertolt Brecht and Erwin Piscator, plus touches of socialist realism, bringing the story alive with subversive energy. The questions of the opening are soon matched by placards, a filmed stream-of-consciousness is projected on the back wall, and there are games. A mimed GAA match with politically-inflected commentary adds to the mayhem, only to be outdone by successive face-offs between The Bishop and Karl Marx, and then Éamon de Valera and Simone de Beauvoir, via orchestral instruments. The stage becomes the space of riotous carnival dreams, musical warmth and incidental truths.

It is special to be in a theatre again, especially one as alive with sensation and experiment as this. Everything happens there, in the open, yet there is a powerful sense of a wider reality beyond. The instrumentalists (Ensemble Miroirs Étendus – impressively adaptable) not only accompany, but even join in on some of the action, like demented musical angels set free in an opera of centuries ago. Through all the eclectic song-and-dance routines, the subtext of the silencing of Celine (by incarceration, then electrotherapy) makes its way to consciousness, and through the voices of those who play her.

(L to R): Sinéad O’Kelly, Amy Ní Fhearraigh, Adrian Dwyer, Fearghal Curtis and Sarah Shine

Above all, this is an opera: Gallen allows the singers to use the richness and beauty of their voices to express the characters and the situations. The music shifts in style as the story changes focus, and there are moments of sheer gorgeousness in the sound from both players and singers. The work centres on what it takes to recover what has been lost: voice, energy, will, imagination, justice. The value of art to mental health has never been in doubt, but its need is perhaps felt more than ever now, making this show a rich and prescient feast for eyes and ears. The only criticism would be that the sung text often needs the surtitles to be understood, and there are times when the words need more space to be heard. Other works produced at the Abbey are available in print, and it would be good to have this libretto in published form as well.

Seeing this work affirms that theatre can still offer something new. Restricted to a limited run, one can only hope that it can return to the stage, and soon. This is a show that needs to be seen and heard – and more than once. It deserves to run and run.

Michael Gallen: Elsewhere
Libretto by Michael Gallen, Dylan Coburn Gray, and Annemarie Ní Churreáin
Produced by Straymaker and the Abbey Theatre
Director: Tom Creed; Set/Costume Designer: Katie Davenport; Lighting Designer: Sinead McKenna; Video Designer: Luca Truffarelli; Choreographer: Shawn Fitzgerald-Ahern; Conductor: Fiona Monbet
Singers: Daire Halpin; Amy Ní Fhearraigh; Adrian Dwyer; Sarah Shine; Sinéad O’Kelly; Fearghal Curtis; Aaron O’Hare
Ensemble Miroirs Étendus

Photography by Ros Kavanagh