Writer: Enda Walsh
Director: Enda Walsh
Composer: Donnacha Dennehy
Conductor: Alan Pierson
Reviewer: Liam Harrison
The Last Hotel, composed by Donnacha Dennehy and directed by Enda Walsh, is a modern opera which performs a tragedy of banality. Lyrics of the mundane everyday world, about “the coupons to gain access to the internet”, are contrasted with soaring, poetic explorations into beauty, love and loneliness. The effect is to create a new kind of mythology, a blending of high opera and Greek classicism with seedy seaside hotels. Performed in his old Belvedere College, James Joyce may well have approved of such modernist blurring of forms.
The plot begins with an English couple who have sailed across the Irish sea to a dreary two-star hotel (which has a distinct air of Barton Fink), to assist in a lonely Irishwoman’s suicide. After an initial, awkward spoken exchange – of the recognisable, phatic “how was your journey?” – the singing starts and never surrenders its hypnotic grip. The opera’s libretto and its subtext explores the three singers’ anxieties – from their smallest vanities to their deepest fears. The performance is engrossingly dark, bound along through swirling rhythms which resonate with the characters’ airs of desperation, and the domination of mood over a coherent plot.
The Last Hotel depicts a bizarre yet overly-familiar world, of kitchen-extensions, home décor, room service, and buffet spreads. Yet the opera takes this mundane reality and heightens it to sense of hyper-reality, which ends up seeping over almost into a sense of unreality.
The operatic shifting from the quotidian to the transcendental is magnified by the singers’ magnificent performances. Claudia Boyle’s voluptuous, unhinged Irishwoman is determined to both assume centre-stage yet also to take the final check-out. Her character echoes Beckett’s short work Play through her paranoid questions: “Is anyone looking at me?” Robin Adams’ bravado and Katherine Manley’s long silences clash in a perfect harmony of the broken, loveless marriage. And a special mention must be made for Michael Murfi, the mute hotel caretaker. Among the amazing performances of the singers he won’t get the headlines, but his spectral presence provides a vital, silent energy, which adds another layer to the spectacle of hysteria.
Dennehy’s musical score is wonderfully played by Dublin’s Crash Ensemble and conducted by Alan Pierson, and it provides a relentless, psychopathological air of menace. The music is perfectly jarring, as it manages to capture the collapsing distinctions between banal and ethereal realities.
The competing expressive mediums – of the operatic singing, stage action, musical score and textual libretto – create a general discord which also resonates with the mood and plot. The latter is always subservient to the expressive arts on display, yet its message is ever-present: an assisted suicide, with a financial incentive to pay for a kitchen extension – modern life doesn’t get much bleaker than this. But the violent energy and ambiguity of the opera prevents a descent into uncontested despair, leaving a faint glimpse of redemption, possibly, through music.
Runs until 3rd October as part of the Dublin Theatre Festival | Image: Hugh O’ Conor