A Tom Creed and Abbey Theatre co-production – The Hunger
19 – 24 August 2019
Images: Jack Vartoogian
The ‘Annals of the Famine in Ireland’ is an account written by Asenath Nicholson in 1847. She was an American woman who visited Ireland during the famine, doing everything in her power to alleviate the extreme poverty she found here by organizing soup kitchens and distributing bread in the streets. This first hand account was recently edited by Maureen Murphy and published by Lilliput Press. This account forms the basis for this new opera written by Donnacha Dennehy.
There are two performers on stage throughout, with Iarla Ó Lionáird (well known Sean-Nós Singer and lead singer of the Gloaming) playing the role of an Irish man struggling to keep his family alive. The other member of the cast is Soprano Katherine Manley, who plays the aforementioned Asenath and is shocked by the plight of this man. Manley previously performed in the The Last Hotel, which again featured music by Dennehy. With only two characters on stage, it is a highly personal and intimate tale.
The stage is quite striking, as the actors perform on a raised platform, representing a strip of land, the mountainside where the old man ekes out his living. There is no attempt to hide the 17 musicians who are dotted around the stage all dressed in black. The musicians are part of the The Crash Ensemble, who were formed by Dennehy himself in 1997 and aim to play “adventurous, ground-breaking music”.
The back wall of the set is used to display projections, along with five small screens. Usually these are reserved for images of a rugged landscape or of sky, but occasionally we get ‘talking head’ style documentary pieces from modern commentators (Noam Chomsky, Paul Krugman and more) discussing the Irish famine in abstract terms. They talk about it from an economic and political standpoint, showing that there was nothing unusual about the treatment of Ireland by the colonial power in control and indeed similar events took place a hundred years later in India. It is a nice counterpoint to the deeply personal and emotional tale being acted out on stage.
The scope of the story is quite limited as we see a few days in the life of our main protagonist, where he struggles to find food for his family. The musical score is a constant throughout the performance and the two actors sing for the duration, with no spoken elements to the story. While Iarla Ó Lionáird may attract a new audience to this performance, it is definitely an Opera and soprano Katherine Manley shares equal time with Ó Lionáird. The video pieces are an interesting choice and add an intellectual element to what could have been quite a simplistic tale without. This work is both a contemplative and stylish rendering on this most difficult of subject matters.
Soprano: Katherine Manley
Sean-Nós Singer: Iarla Ó Lionáird
Orchestra: Crash Ensemble
Violin: Courtney Orlando
Violin: Larissa O’Grady
Viola: Lisa Dowdall
Cello: Kate Ellis
Double Bass: Caimin Gilmore
Flutes, Piccolo: Susan Doyle
Oboe, Cor Anglais: Dorine Schoon
Clarinet, Bass Clarinet: Macdara Ó Seireadáin
Clarinet: Leonie Bluett
Trombone: Roddy O’Keeffe
French horn: Hannah Miller
Trumpet: Cameron Todd
Bassoon: Clíona Warren
Percussion: Owen Gunnell
Percussion: Alex Petcu
Piano: Eliza McCarthy
Music and Words: Donnacha Dennehy
Conductor: Alan Pierson
Director: Tom Creed
Set and Video Design: Jim Findlay
Costume Design: Tilly Grimes
Lighting Design: Christopher Kuhl
Sound Design: David Sheppard / Sound Intermedia
Video Associate: Jack Phelan
Associate Sound Designer: Jonathan Green
Dramaturgy: Jocelyn Clarke
Assistant Director: Eoghan Carrick
Répétiteur: Aoife O’Sullivan