Gentrification

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Kieran Ahern in Gentrification 2015 Cork: Photograph, The Irish Times

I am thinking of writing about Enda Walsh for my dissertation so when our group was offered tickets for his play Gentrification at the Cork Savings Bank last week, I jumped at the opportunity.  As a Londoner, and obsessive theatre-goer, I am familiar with the rules for this sort of site-responsive, promenade/art installation production.I have been acclimatised to events such as Punchdrunk’s  Faust and The Masque of the Red Death (http://punchdrunk.com/past-shows/column/20), as well as a play about Iraq in an underground garage (stovepipe), and corporate men and women taking off their clothes in In the Beginning was the End Dreamthinkspeak at Somerset House.  I feel- been there, done that.  Instead, my favourite sort of theatre experience, is a brilliant writer, skilful actors, perceptive direction and a small space.  So I would pick out as superb theatre such productions as Women and Scarecrow at the Royal Court, London, Our Ajax at the Southwark, London, Disco Pigs at the Young Vic, London.

Nevertheless I was excited about seeing Gentrification as I see as many as I can of Enda Walsh’s plays.  He brought Penelope to Hampstead in London and I went along to his talk for teachers before the show.  There were only about four of us there.  He spoke of his writing process and how he leads creative writing sessions.  One exercise is to give his students an image of a block of flats and then to identify one room and start imagining who is inside.  Who comes to the door?  You will immediately think of Walworth Farce. I saw that in Edinburgh and at the National Theatre.  The National Theatre was, probably, too large a space.  Maybe, with that in mind, the set for Ballyturk (which I also saw at the National) is described as “A very large room: too large”.  misterman was performed on the largest stage at the National, the Olivier, and Walsh writes “we’re looking at an abandoned depot/dilapidated factory”. In this way the director and designer were able to use, and at the same time, contract, the enormous space into, what Walsh describes as, “small, tiny stages”.

For Gentrification, we turned up and were shown, individually (the total number of audience members was fixed at 22) into a small reception room. In spite of my knowledge of the genre I felt unable to sit in the chair facing away from the room, with headphones.  But our intrepid lecturer, Dr. Etienne, went straight there and listened.  She told me to listen too but when I tried it was only music.  I suspect that the sound design allows only one person to listen to instructions.  She told us to move freely among the rooms.  There were eight rooms, not all accessible imediately.

This is my description,currently, of the eight rooms.  I know I missed things, which I will need to add.

Room one: reception: neutral – white or greenish white, benches, halogen heater. Square hole in wall at waist height: if you look through it you see a small inky sketch of a black bird. Headphones on chair facing into corner.

Room two: large walk-in cupboard for hanging coats. Small children’s coats are hung there. Maybe ten?

Room three: kitchen – door was shut to contain smells of cooked breakfast. Very scruffy kitchen with electric razor and toasted sandwich maker on worktop. Dirty sink. Crusted pan of baked beans, small frying pan with smallish burnt sausages. Formica table with crusted breakfast plates – two. Dog bowl with maybe two cans tipped into it but not mashed by a fork. Large empty dog food can. Overflowing bin with, on top, cheap version of Jaffa Cakes packets. View through filthy window of backyard with washing line and one shirt hung up carelessly and another garment on the ground. Backyard is walled by high walls. Grubby paintwork. No other view. Nasty cheap carpet with stains. Nasty cheap sofa with gaffer-tape type repairs. Dirty looking middle aged man sitting on it. Changing channels. Federer or cartoon. Remote control. Man on sofa flicking channels. This is Barry.

Room four: Office type room with 54 phones hanging from the ceiling to right of door. Phones are squawking, numbers being counted – male voice – 47, 48 etc.  Television screens, one of which shows a CCTV recording of a child’s bedroom.  Laptop with map of city and (pins) marking about 50 locations. Scruffy desk. Door opposite later is thrown open by Barry and audience follow through to room six.

Room five: Corridor shaped room with shelves on either side – somewhat like a filing cabinet – there are blinds that can be used to close off shelves. Each shelf has a tiny, very clean, bed made up. A small child could sleep in this bed. There are 54 beds. In a wardrobe, which is open, there are sets of tiny sheets and covers – brightly coloured.

Room six: Elegant and high ceilinged Banking Hall. Tellers’ wooden “desks” surround a central square/rectangle. Centre stage a square of black and white tiles. A man, Enda, stands on one of the desks (upstage) with rubber gloves, cleaning spray and badminton shorts on. He is cleaning manically and acrobatically. Eventually jumps down and scrubs tiles energetically. Then screams and runs out through upstage door. There is also a swivel door, glass, through which at one point we can see Barry standing.

Room seven: child’s bedroom. Themed as Snow White. On pinboard there are children’s drawings, including the same little, inkspot black bird that we saw in room one. Out through a door opposite and up a spiral staircase.

Room eight: a boardroom. Large oval table with 22 chairs, 11 per side. Audience invited to sit. Either end, in larger chairs, Barry and Enda. Coffee cups brought on by Enda (one each for the characters) and plates of Jaffa cakes. Fireplace/shelf with radio. Audience is invited to sit either side of the table.

I haven’t told you what the play is about as its form is revelatory and it would spoil it for you if you ever get a chance to see it.  But, clearly, it is a riff on gentrification as an evil concept. It is based on Enda Walsh’s experience when he moved into a new house in London, and one of the two characters is, in fact, named Enda.

Site-specific or site-responsive theatre is very exciting and interesting.  You never really know if you have spotted or heard the crucial elements.  Your brain is working hard, which is good.  Corcadorca is clearly “up there” with the best of these companies. So sad that I missed How These Desperate Men Talk at the Kindle Arts Festival. But I got what I wanted at Gentrification: a brilliant writer, skilful actors, perceptive direction and a small space.
Works cited

Brace, A., Stovepipe 2009 Faber.

Carr, M., Woman and Scarecrow 2006. Faber.

dreamthinkspeak In the Beginning was the End (2013). Unpublished.

Punchdrunk. Faust 2006/2007. Unpublished.

—. The Masque of the Red Death. 2007/2008 Unpublished.

Walsh, E., Ballyturk 2014 NHB

—. Enda Walsh:Plays One “Disco Pigs”, “misterman”,  2011. NHB

—. Gentrification . Unpublished

—. Penelope, 2011. NHB

—. Walworth Farce

Wertenbaker, T., Our Ajax 2013. Faber.