Paler, Still – Smock Alley Theatre, Dublin

Reviewer: Louise Tallon

Writer: Oonagh Wall

Director: Eftychia Spyridaki

Some 350 years after The Theatre Royal at Smock Alley was first built, Ireland’s oldest playhouse, lovingly restored, presents a play by one of our youngest companies. Anseo/Anois, meaning here and now, established in 2019 was founded by Lir Academy graduate actors, Éanna Grogan and Amy Kidd along with Trinity College English and Classics graduate, Oonagh Wall.

In an evocation of Dublin’s Pale, the strip of land controlled by the English during the middle ages, Wall creates an Ireland of the future where rising seas have caused the Capital and its environs, the ‘GDR’ to move further inland. Her protagonists, childhood friends Liam and Aisling, played by Grogan and Kidd, have crossed the border which once again separates the country, in search of solace for the latter after her nervous breakdown.

Liam and Aisling have travelled through a bleak and dying landscape to find the abandoned Tipperary Hotel, which may or may not provide succour. The set, designed by Iris Liange, comprises a solitary room with a worn sofa and woven throw, rug, privacy curtain and hospitality table. A chalk-board floor is inspirational and is instrumental, at times, in directing the audience. The sheer voile curtain behind which Liam and Aisling announce themselves with full comedic effect transforms into the damp and mouldy grey wall of the hotel room.

During the first, and longest, half of the play we bear witness to Liams “therapy process” and the “extraordinary measures” he takes in his quest to heal Aisling. Great moments of levity are interspersed with social and political commentary on a number of serious issues. The urban/rural divide is highlighted by the contrast in Liam and Aislings backgrounds and characters. One, from the city, had a life of privilege and a third level education while the other, from provincial Ireland, lacked those advantages.

Although more by accident than design, Aishling’s English accent and well-bred demeanour compares favourably with Liam’s often coarse behaviour. He’s prone to suddenly spouting ‘as gaeilge’ (lovely to hear) and he loves his Tayto sandwiches (don’t we all). Sitting within the old walls of Smock Alley, in the heart of medieval Dublin and seat of English rule within the pale, the reviewer is reminded of a section of history’s depiction of the Irish living beyond the pale, as savage and uncivilised.

Towards the second half, the play gathers pace and the atmosphere changes. Eftychia Spyridaki’s direction comes into its own as she knits together a seamless collaboration of the players and their roles. The praiseworthy music by Katya Solomatina on sound and the wonderful lighting by Matt McGowan come together to at first soothe and then to agitate, according to the shifting moods. The twists are dark and unexpected. Think ‘Room’ by Emma Donoghue.

Éanna Grogan and Amy Kidd are outstanding. Paler, Still is one hour and 40 minutes long, has a substantial amount of dialogue and is physically demanding of its actors. Neither falters for a moment. Their performances are gripping and energetic from start to finish.

This play settles into itself as it goes on. Despite moments of welcome hilarity and fun cameos, its themes are varied and can feel heavy. One scene is particularly discomfiting. Aisling says it best when she tells Liam “I feel like we deep dived into stuff”.

Go see Paler, Still to witness some excellent, emerging talent.

Runs until 26th November 2022

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The Ireland team is currently under the editorship of Laura Marriott. The Reviews Hub was set up in 2007. Our mission is to provide the most in-depth, nationwide arts coverage online.

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