Elsewhere – Abbey Theatre – Review
by Paddy McGovern
Straymaker and the Abbey Theatre in association with Miroirs Étendus and Once Off Productions – Elsewhere
15 – 20 November 2021
Photos by Ros Kavanagh
The second decade of the twentieth century saw more than a whiff of rebellion, not just in Czarist Russia but across Europe. There was a real fear of socialist revolution in England, while in Ireland the anxiety caused to authorities by the Great Lock-Out and the left-leaning Irish Citizen Army are well recorded, as is the short-lived Limerick Soviet, thanks to the work of the late Jim Kemmy. Much less known is the uprising in January 1919, mounted by the staff of the Monaghan and Cavan Asylum, against the inhumane conditions, poor pay and a 93-hour week imposed by the asylum authorities. Guided by the radical socialist, Peadar O’Donnell, they raised a red flag and declared a Soviet commune. The happenings surrounding that revolutionary fortnight over a hundred years ago form the basis of Michael Gallen’s opera, Elsewhere, which opened last night at the Abbey Theatre.
Under the commune, distinctions between staff and patients, based on religion, status or gender were swept aside and pressure from police, press, politicians and clergy was ignored. Asylum residents were included in planning and activities. At the core of the opera is the profound transformation brought about by uniting all as equals in pursuit of a worthwhile ideal, affirming the humanity of people in protective state care, rather than treating them as incidental to the efficient running of an institutional system.
The opera is structured around the delusions of Celine, a patient who imagines herself as O’Donnell, the leader of the Soviet. Long after the incident has faded from history, she continues to inhabit that fantasy, now locked into the persona of O’Donnell, the man who gave hope and purpose to her existence. While her illness is not denied or minimised by the composer, her character is imbued with intelligence and humanity that make her much more than an easy magnet for audience sympathy. The device of a second Celine the ‘then’ and the ‘now’ works well, their duets highlighting what ‘the system’ has done to the woman that was incarcerated.
Clichés of bourgeois respectability such as “pillars of society and captains of industry” are left in no doubt about where they stand in O’Donnell’s (and, one suspects, Gallen’s) pecking order. There is frequent, witty use of deliberately anachronistic phrases such as “the struggle for gender equality”. Despite the opera’s historic setting, it is hard to avoid the notion that the composer is suggesting a parallel between attitudes to mental illness a hundred years ago and the inadequacy of treatment today. Indeed, by awkward symmetry, the opera opened on the day that the RTE reported criticism by the Mental Health Commission of the lack of appropriate treatment for mentally ill prisoners in Irish jails today.
While obviously informed by a sense of engagement and empathy, Elsewhere is never swamped by political ideology or imposed theatrics. In fact, the opera is often humorous, even in depicting dark events. Gallen’s atonal music is complemented by the input of the composer’s co-librettists, dramatist Dylan Coburn-Gray and poet Annemarie Ní Churreáin. From hushed opening to tumultuous climax to the deeply affecting final moments, a dramatist’s hand is evident in clear characterisation and fluid, purposeful movement. Design team of Katie Davenport and Sinead McKenna have created a stark, forbidding atmosphere, while video projections by Luca Truffarelli evoke the grim greyness of the enclosing walls of the asylum.
The presence of the chorus, orchestra and their conductor (Fiona Monbet) onstage throughout is handled superbly, players and conductor melting into the action and out again. Rhymes, half-rhymes and alliterative chanting intensify the unfolding narrative, even if at times the text (in surtitles) is so beautiful that one is momentarily distracted from the stage.
Singers (Daire Halpin, Aaron O’Hare, Amy Ní Fhearraigh, Adrian Dwyer, Sarah Shine, Fearghal Curtis, Sinéad O’Kelly) and musicians are deliberately unidentified, reinforcing an impression of a seamlessly welded team under director Tom Creed dedicated to staging a piece of contemporary music of considerable emotional and indeed political weight.
The opera continues its run this week, nightly at 7:30, with Covid protection measures reassuringly implemented and monitored.
Singers: Daire Halpin, Aaron O’Hare, Amy Ní Fhearraigh, Adrian Dwyer, Sarah Shine, Fearghal Curtis, Sinéad O’Kelly
Ensemble Miroirs Étendus: Aurélie Martin, Constant Madon, Cyprien Noisette, Elsa Moatti, Joséphine Besançon, Julia Macarez, Michèle Pierre, Sarah Van der Vlist, Romain Louveau
Concept/Composer: Michael Gallen
Libretto: Michael Gallen, Annemarie Ní Churreáin and Dylan Coburn Gray
Director: Tom Creed
Conductor: Fiona Monbet
Vocal Director: Romain Louveau
Set and Costume Designer: Katie Davenport
Lighting Designer: Sinead McKenna
Video Design: Luca Truffarelli
Choreographer: Shawn Ahern
Associate Director: Aoife Spillane Hinks
Producer: Maura O’Keeffe