Katherine Manley, Iarla Ó Lionáird, and the Crash Ensemble at the Abbey Theatre, on 23 August 2019

The Great Famine of mid-19th-century Ireland is an emotive topic. One of the greatest outrages of British rule, simply to recollect it is still provocative, especially in these brittle times. More usually the subject of memorials and songs than material for the stage, part of the trauma of the Great Famine is its lack of a specific story with which to bind it all together, beyond the horror of the figures themselves. In his excellent programme note, composer Donnacha Dennehy quotes the great song-collector of the time, George Petrie, who starkly associated the Famine with an “awful, unwonted silence”.

For this work Dennehy draws on the words of an outsider, the American reformer Asenath Nicholson and her Annals of the Famine in Ireland (1851), an account of her journeys through Ireland at this time. Her viewpoint forms the sung text, compiled by the composer himself, its words beautifully sung by soprano Katherine Manley. A further dimension is given by sean-nós singer Iarla Ó Lionáird as a representative old man (or ‘old Ireland’), a figure in torment, singing snatches of the traditional keening lament for a dead child and the song ‘Na Prátai Dubha’ [‘Black Potatoes’].

The two singers are initially placed at either end of a sloping traverse-like platform, containing a rough swathe of earth. The players of the Crash Ensemble are seated on either side. The staging also includes atmospheric back-projections of land and sky, and video-screens which add further imagery, or words, and which also allow the insertion of filmed interviews made with selected public thinkers including Paul Krugman and Noam Chomsky. These connect the historic setting with more recent contexts (the inequalities of present-day Ireland excluded), adding a third layer to the performance.

In the course of the piece, Manley slowly makes her way from the top of the platform to the bottom, before stepping off altogether and standing on the same level as the instrumentalists. By contrast, Ó Lionáird stays mainly at the lower end. His slow, painful progress to the top, punctuated by burial and despair, is a thing of physical beauty, his movement Beckett-like in its purity and focus, albeit without the gallows humour.

Hearing Ó Lionáird’s voice at the Abbey—where his first teacher, Seán Ó Riada, directed the orchestra so many years ago—completes a precious circle in Irish music and theatre that deserves recognition in itself. His and Manley’s voices gain richness as the evening passes, and their strong performances lend this work power and beauty of tone. The sense of a culture being rubbed out before our eyes is palpable, complete with flashes of intensity, though it is notable that the two roles never interact.

Strip away the video screens and cinematic backdrop, however, and like a medieval mystery play or tableau vivant—a living picture of old—this work’s static approach proves to be anything but modern. All we can do is look on. While the visual effects add atmosphere, this work is not so much a piece of living theatre as a documentary cantata. The short interviews are interesting and informative, but also give the effect of pre-digesting the work, filling in gaps and leaving little to chance or the imagination. This impression is further reinforced by Dennehy’s restless music. The size of the ensemble enables a thick texture, while the busy processes of the material insulate the drama in unending sound, never allowing Petrie’s “awful silence” to intrude. Appropriately, perhaps, tonight’s performance is filmed, and this work might find a better home in that medium.

Programme:
Donnacha Dennehy: The Hunger
Sung in English and Irish (text compiled by Donnacha Dennehy), with English surtitles
Co-Produced by Tom Creed and the Abbey Theatre
Director: Tom Creed; Set/Video Designer: Jim Findlay; Costume Designer: Tilly Grimes; Lighting Designer: Christopher Kuhl; Conductor: Alan Pierson
Cast: Katherine Manley (soprano); Iarla Ó Lionáird (sean-nós singer)
Crash Ensemble

Photography by Pat Redmond