So last Friday I went to see a new play by Shaun Dunne: The Waste Ground Party, which is running at the Peacock until later this month.
Dunne is a writer who has been getting a lot of attention and (deserved) praise for his work – in recent plays like I Am A Homebird (It’s Really Hard), Death of the Tradesmen and Advocacy. But this is his first play at the Abbey.
It occurred to me while I was watching it that there’s always a risk that a writer’s first play at the Abbey might also be his or her last play at the Abbey – or anywhere else. There’s a sense in which writing for the national theatre sometimes causes writers to overreach, to tackle issues of “national importance” that feel unnatural onstage. And it’s also true that plays at the bigger theatres are placed under a certain amount of pressure to be of a higher standard than is necessarily fair to a young writer. The weight of expectation – and the subsequently bruising critical reaction – can be a challenge for young writers, even if that challenge may bring out the best in some of them.
So there was something very positive about The Waste Ground Party, which is not trying to be anything other than what it is: a relatively simple story about people in an inner-city community – people who are trying in different ways to keep their lives together in the face of a series of day-to-day hassles that cumulatively threaten to overwhelm them.
In an Irish Times interview Dunne told Sara Keating that he never thought the play would be produced – and this appears to have relieved him of a certain amount of pressure
I wrote it as an exercise, as a challenge to myself, to set certain boundaries, like no one should talk to the audience, and the action should take place in real time. Not that I stuck to all the rules. But it’s definitely the most narrative thing I have ever done.
And that’s how the play comes across: as an attempt by a young writer to try things out, to find his way.
So what we get is a play that is very interesting in its depiction of the inter-relationships between two women and their adult sons. One of the young men has gone to college on an Access course but is thinking of dropping out; the other is trying to get a football league going in the local area, if only to prove to his mother than he’s not the worthless layabout that she clearly fears he might be. The two mothers hate each other for reasons that aren’t specified, but because they share a mutual friend they just about manage to remain on speaking terms.
Bringing these five characters together is the fact that someone keeps dumping rubbish in a neighbour’s garden: the different attempts each of the characters is making to improve the community are thus undermined by the repeated appearance of someone else’s bin-bags. They’re stinking the place out of it, attracting vermin.
So this is a play about community, about how people can support each other even when they don’t really seem to like each other very much. The two lads Martin and Gary seem to have a friendship that is based on years in each other’s company rather than any kind of shared interest or mutual esteem. And the two women antagonists Tina and Bernie move from moments of abusing each other terribly to a sense of shared purpose at the end of the play. Their mutual friend Denise offers an unusual blend of anxiety and good-nature that characterises the play in its entirety. There’s something oddly optimistic about the resilience of these characters, even as we share their fear of humiliation, their pessimism, and their sense of encroaching defeat.
What most interests me about this play is that Dunne chooses not to spell things out about these characters. We’ve had a year in Irish drama where playwrights are trying to do a lot with plot – where plays have hurtled energetically, and sometimes recklessly, towards final scene revelations. I’m thinking here of the obvious examples: the final scene of Ballyturk and the (in many ways very similar) final scene of Our Few and Evil Days. And I’m also thinking of Brian Martin’s Be Infants in Evil for Druid earlier this summer, a play that gave us an unexpected pregnancy, a case of clerical child abuse, a suicide, and much more – all in the space of about 90 minutes.
Perhaps under the influence of the memory of those plays, I found myself constantly predicting what might happen next in the Waste Ground Party. There are times when we seem on the verge of a series of revelations: a declaration of undeclared love, or the death of an offstage character, for example. But what I found very interesting is that although some of the loose ends are tied up, many are left there for us to take away when we leave the theatre.
There’s a comparison to me made here with the work of Brian Friel, whose main theme could be what he calls a “necessary uncertainty”. We don’t know if Gar will actually go to Philadelphia; we never find out what happened to Yolland in Translations or fully understand what happens to Rose and Agnes after they leave in Lughnasa. We’ll never be sure if Casimir really has that German family in Aristocrats, and Frank Hardy will tell us that he chooses death for its certainty in Faith Healer.
For Friel, uncertainty is a theme. For Dunne, it’s more of a style: a decision about how to tell the story. But I admired his willingness to leave us with so many questioned unanswered. And there’s a sense too in which we could return to this community in a year’s time and find things relatively unchanged: there’s no great crisis or revelation to be found here.
For some people this will undoubtedly be a problem: Chris McCormack over in his excellent blog Musings in Intermissions sees this feature of the play as a dramaturgical weakness. But, for me at least, I found it a relief to encounter a new writer who doesn’t feel the need to tell us everything, to show us everything, to shock us with revelations of child abuse or rape or some other horrendous violence. He just points us towards a community and says “look”.
It’s also great too to see Gerry Stembridge back at the Abbey. He is the director of what remains my favourite Shakespeare production at that theatre, a hilarious County and Western version of Comedy of Errors from 1992. I also enjoyed his production of Mark O’Rowe’s Made in China (which did the whole incident with the pool cue long before poor Fran in Love/Hate, by the way). It’s often said that he directs in a very cinematic style, and while I think that’s true to an extent, he also has a very good understanding of the live audience. There are some unnerving moments during the play, such as the intermittent dropping to the stage of yet more rubbish bags (each loud bang causing some of the people around me to jolt a little) – or, later in the play, the mildly uncanny appearance of a Council man who cleans up the rubbish but refuses to speak (he’s not credited but this role was played by Bryan O’Connell when I saw the play).
And then there’s the acting. Jasmine Russell appears in a lot of Stembridge’s work but we don’t see her often enough elsewhere, which is a pity. Ger Ryan as Bernie has a lovely balance between frustration and hope: she’s trying to keep things together for herself and her son, but you can sense her fear that she won’t be able to maintain the effort. Louise Lewis as Denise is also very strong, and I enjoyed the layered performance of the two male leads Lloyd Cooney and Alan Mahon.
As I’ve implied above, I don’t think this play will be for everyone. The reviews have been somewhat mixed. As mentioned, Chris McCormack found problems with it; Cormac O’Brien over on the Public Reviews gave it an extremely positive reception. And in the Irish Times Peter Crawley is somewhere between the two, writing a review that is very positive and affirmative, albeit that it’s headed with three stars. In the Indo Emer O’Kelly also praised the play, albeit that she also took a swipe at Advocacy and (presumably) I’ve to Mind Her, stating that Dunne is at his best when “he is not ticking boxes, especially politically correct boxes” (this is not online yet so I can’t link to it). The Business Post also gave it a very positive review.
I heard a similar range of remarks as I walked out of the Peacock myself. I don’t think this is the best new play we’ve seen in Ireland this year, but it is a work that will confirm something that many of us already suspect: that Shaun Dunne has a really interesting career ahead of him. I’d go to the play for that reason alone, and am seriously looking forward to seeing what he does next.
Here he is talking about his work