THEATREclub have brought their exploration of Irish drug abuse and culture to Smock Alley Theatre as part of the Ulster Bank Dublin Theatre Festival. Barry Houlihan looks at this sobering account at Ireland’s dark drug problem.
Heroin was not freely available in Dublin until the late 1970s. In the tract of history of Irish society it is certainly a pretty recent phenomenon. In a 1989 report from the Department of General Practice, based in Royal College of Physicians, Ireland, some 82 people from a south inner-city Dublin flat complex were surveyed about drug and Heroin use. In 1981, 68 out of 75 respondents admitted regular Heroin use. They admitted addiction. By 1985, this dropped from 19 out of 45 respondents. The evidence must be that tackling Heroin was working, right? Wrong.
THEATREclub have brought their exploration of Irish and Dublin’s drug love-affair to the Ulster Bank Dublin Theatre Festival. The play is an effective history of drug culture as well as drug abuse in Ireland and there is a very real and important distinction between those two terms. The abuse forms as a result of the culture that allows the problem to fester in the first place. Actor Barry O’Connor spells out these very failings with poetic social commentaries in monologue that under the lighting and music that accompanies them would not feel out of place in a 1980s dingy city bar. The scenes form an episodic history of Dublin’s social, economic and political development from the 1960s to present day. Along with the frantic motion of these sound-tracked, drug-tinged history lessons, they often take on the feel of ‘Reeling in the Years’ on Smack.
Along with this growth was the dark figure of Heroin tip-toeing along behind – a presence that made you stop and turn around now and then, you felt its existence, you had heard something about it but as you didn’t see it, or didn’t want to see it, you put it down to your imagination. Self-imposed blindness is worse than ignorance. As Ger meticulously prepares his hit of Heroin, complete with needle and makeshift tourniquet, it is troubling to watch as the act of injection is put centre stage and brought out of the unseen apartments. It is a powerful motif to confront this as Barry symbolically pleads with Ger, “Don’t do that in here, don’t do that in front of me’. This plea is more out of Barry’s own discomfort with seeing drug use rather than out of compassion or a desire to help.
The play forms around a dingy inner-city Dublin flat that is built up from its foundations around the cast and in front of the audience. Barry and Ger make this flat their own space and inhibit it in seeking isolation with their addiction as opposed to integration into a wider community. The effect Heroin is having is seen immediately. Barry and Ger seem to be very much the same person – two sides of the one personality. One is weak and subservient the other dominant and strong, as long as there is that weaker element to push down upon and dictate. In fact, Barry can be seen as the human form of the drug itself, pushing and ordering, taking control of all aspects of Ger’s life.
The play was written and directed by Grace Dyas but THEATREclub is very much a group think-thank. The energy about this group of people is evident in every action of their work and is especially evident when you hear them talk about their work. The post-show discussion provided a fascinating insight into the production and staging of this work but also in the research and with working with front-line drug treatment units in Rialto. Even as Dyas sometimes looked for the right words to explain elements of Heroin, she didn’t have to – it is obvious the flair of this group is all natural and not something they could not easily put into words. In fact, as they did explain that so much of each performance is actually improvised from show to show, it only emphasises that as this group moves forward, their capability and potential is going to be really exciting to follow.
The rise of Irish drug culture has occurred in waves and has grown in spite of and always despite economic downturns. The chronic rise in Heroin consumption in areas of inner-city Dublin in the 1970s and 1980’s was mirrored by a widespread and recreational use of Cocaine in the late 1990s and 2000’s as Celtic Tiger Ireland was awash with drug stained money. But this was ok as long as you weren’t using Heroin. Heroin is more of a death sentence than a treatable addiction.
While the focus is very much on social, political and economic failures – “Our mansions are crumbling, people are moving to the suburbs. It’s leaving the bad with the bad”. Heroin does look at the possibility and process of recovery. Addiction is something that can be beaten but must be treated and respected as an illness and not as strictly a personal failing. Lauren holds and reads a copy of Rachel Keogh’s autobiography, telling the story of her life as a Heroin addict and how she overcame that obstacle in her life.
A post show discussion with director and writer of Heroin Grace Dyas, along with Shane Byrne, another member of THEATREclub, as well as a representative from the Rialto Drugs Treatment Team offered honest insights and reflections on the show. It is interesting to note that when asked about goals for this play, Shane Byrne commented how discussions such as on that night were a very real goal, as debate on and raising awareness of drug abuse in Ireland needs to happen.
Heroin is an excellent addition to a Festival line up that is perhaps one of the most socially challenging and reflective of contemporary Ireland as has ever been put together for the Dublin Theatre Festival. THEATREclub has consistently marked themselves out as a company with ideas and considerably ability. Perhaps if the audience took one thing away from that performance and post-show discussion, it was a point from Grace Dyas as she pointed out that if Heroin had been staged in the late 1970’s it would have been relevant then and if the play would be staged in forty years from now, it would still be relevant. Sobering thoughts indeed.
Heroin is at Smock Alley Theatre as part of the Ulster Bank Theatre Festival until October 9th.