Irish National Opera in O’Reilly Theatre, Dublin on 11 September 2021

‘Least Like The Other’ is a piece of operatic documentary theatre for two actors, voice-over artist, opera singer, and—in this version—pre-recorded instrumental ensemble. The story concerns Rosemary Kennedy, member of the well-known American political dynasty (sister of JFK, amongst other celebrity connections). Ostracised by her own family for apparent mental health issues, and secretly lobotomised in 1941 aged 23, she was institutionalised for the rest of her life. Seeing this in a theatre located inside another religious institution, the Jesuit Belvedere College, might offer a faintly ironic frisson, but once the lights go down no distractions from the story are permitted.

In a throwback to the machine-plays and semi-operas of old, this draws together a curious balance of theatrical elements. Normally a singer performing on stage is not ‘incidental’, for example, but that is what has been achieved here. The singing voice serves as simply another energy-source in the web of gathered material, along with other stage actions and voices, and the exquisite video animations designed by director Netia Jones. The music, composed by Brian Irvine, presents a flexible collage of styles, offering listeners a visceral roller-coaster that drives the story and stage-action forward at speed.

At times, there are rare and precious moments of dream-like reverie in this work, but they are unsung and purely instrumental (and filmic). The expressive centre of gravity of this work, however, is to be found in the use of words, of which there are many. Some are even projected on the wall or other surfaces to read whilst being spoken. The records of Rosemary’s life are apparently patchy with much lost, and so the text of this work is built up out of a series of fragments: letters, interviews, speeches, lectures, and historical footage. No librettist is credited. The documentary material is fascinating and heart-breaking, but also relentless. The problem with information is its opacity: little effort is made to dig beneath the surface of the documentary record, there is no speculation, and no space for differing points of view. The irony of this critique—of the hell of mid-20th-century conformism and corruption—is that the work itself ends up trying so hard to control everything that it leaves little room for humanity.

The performers negotiate their many challenges with requisite discipline and polish. Naomi Louisa O’Connell sings her sometimes angular material with beautiful and even tone and projects a vital presence. The actors Stephanie Dufresne (also a brilliant dancer) and Ronan Leahy never miss their marks and play out the personae of Rosemary’s many tormentors with slick power. It is left to the radio-like voice-over of Aoife Spillane-Hinks to provide the most personal presence, allowed to deliver her script at her own pace. First staged in Galway in 2019 with a live orchestra, in tonight’s version the INO Ensemble under conductor Fergus Sheil played with colour and style and was cleanly recorded. At times the instrumental sound threatens to outweigh O’Connell’s voice, but the balance largely works. Those sensitive to lighting effects should be aware that there is a strobe-lit scene towards the end.

Images by Pat Redmond