An agonizing, haunting look at famine in Donnacha Dennehy’s “The Hunger”

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Iarla Ó Lionáird and Katherine Manley perform in Donnacha Dennehy's The Hunger, a collaboration with Alarm Will Sound. (Photo courtesy of Jack Vartoogian/BAM)

Iarla Ó Lionáird and Katherine Manley perform in Donnacha Dennehy’s The Hunger, a collaboration with Alarm Will Sound. (Photo courtesy of Jack Vartoogian/BAM)

How it’s New York: Alarm Will Sound had its origins at Eastman School of Music in Rochester, NY, and its debut concert was in New York in 2001. “The Hunger” was included as part of the Brooklyn Academy of Music’s Next Wave Festival.
How it’s Irish: The play originates from first-hand accounts of the Great Irish Famine in the 1840s. Playwright Donnacha Dennehy is a Dublin native, and the founder of the Irish musical ensemble Crash Ensemble. The play is presented in partnership with the Irish Arts Center.

Hauntingly melodic and starkly condemning at the same time, “The Hunger,” Donnacha Dennehy’s collaboration with Alarm Will Sound, is many things all in one: an opera, a documentary, a concert. The result is a work that is meant to unsettle the audience rather than to console.

The show had two performances on Sept. 30 and Oct. 1 at the Brooklyn Academy of Music’s

As Asenath, Manley is the leader of a one-woman chorus, a Cassandra figure whose words and appeals seem to fall on deaf governmental ears in England. It is hard not to be frustrated at her recounting how a man on the verge of death is repeatedly told “come back on Tuesday” to receive his ration of grain.

Howard Gilman Opera House, as part of the 2016 BAM Next Wave Festival.

“The Hunger” is based on the writings of Asenath Nicholson – sung here by Katherine Manley, making her New York debut – who traveled Ireland in the 1840s and documented the conditions among the people affected by the Great Irish Famine.

Trained at the Royal Scottish Academy of Music and Drama in Glasgow and the Royal College of Music in London, Manley has a beautiful lyric soprano voice, one that seems equally suited for opera, choral music and musical theatre – and according to her credits in the program, she has ample experience with all of those. It is hoped that “The Hunger” will be the first of many appearances for Manley in the New York area.

As Asenath, Manley is the leader of a one-woman chorus, a Cassandra figure whose words and appeals seem to fall on deaf governmental ears. It is hard not to be frustrated at her recounting how a man on the verge of death is repeatedly told “come back on Tuesday” to receive his ration of grain.

Iarla Ó Lionáird is the sean nós singer, the Man. He has some of the most powerful moments in the production; he is the representation of Ireland’s starving, calling out in Irish for God – or any god, heavenly or human, that will hear – to relieve his agony and torment as he uses what is left of his strength to scratch out a grave for his dead child. In his agony, his words – floating up the slope on the plasma screens to where Asenath stands – sound as if he is singing his own funeral dirge.

Iarla Ó Lionáird, as the Man, performs in "The Hunger." (Photo courtesy of Jack Vartoogian/BAM)

Iarla Ó Lionáird, as the Man, performs in “The Hunger.” (Photo courtesy of Jack Vartoogian/BAM)

It is also possible to see him as a representation of Ireland’s old culture and language, marginalized under English rule. Indeed, as Dennehy describes in the program notes,

“There is no published account from the Gaelic-speaking majority that experienced the most. Musical culture almost shut down entirely through the period.”

At certain moments, the screens flicker on and a present-day historian or sociologist will appear, giving some historical background. The commentators featured in the videos are Maureen Murphy, Paul Krugman, Branko Milanovic, Megan Vaughan and Noam Chonsky.

It is almost jarring to see these just-the-facts, clinical descriptions of the Irish famine and the socio-economic factors behind it juxtaposed against the haunting vocals. And there is a moment late in the show when these videos are scrambled, almost by the agonized rage of the Man as he tries to cry out for succor one more time.

Alarm Will Sound provides the orchestrations for the production, under the baton of Alan Pierson. The music, all trills of flute and chords and touches of percussion, is there to act as a bed for the vocals, an auditory backdrop for Asenath and the Man as they tell their stories. So in the music itself, at times melodic and at times discordant, as suiting the mood, you won’t find any dramatic, sweeping flourishes.

The stage and full ensemble of "The Hunger." (Photo courtesy of Jack Vartoogian/BAM)

The stage and full ensemble of “The Hunger.” (Photo courtesy of Jack Vartoogian/BAM)

The staging is spare, for maximum impact. The center of the stage is a slope of turf, grass and rocks, flanked by free-standing stages for the orchestra. Over all is a proscenium screen with five smaller plasma screens placed at strategic intervals. The plasma screens act as extensions of the physical scenery – the effect is like seeing tiny floating islands of green in the darkness over the rest of the stage.

Tom Creed’s direction is masterfully done.

However, the pacing of the show could have used some modification, particularly during the latter half. There were moments when you felt that the drama was reaching its coda – particularly a moment when the Man lay seemingly dead on the slope, and the orchestra left their seats to join him, solemnly playing – only for the drama to continue. It almost has the effect of someone who drops dead, only to pick themselves back up and struggle on.

In the very last moments, Asenath leaves, and the Man is left at the top of the slope to sing the last lines. We are left to ponder – what is the meaning of the bitter fruit at the top of the high-growing rowan tree, and the sweet fruit on the low-growing raspberry? And how does that imagery fit in with the Irish famine, and the reformers who tried to get the message across to the government?

We are also left to ask ourselves: Living as we do in an era where we are accustomed to seeing images of suffering on the 24-hour news, how would we have responded to the images of the Irish famine? Would we have listened to Asenath’s words, or would we have succumbed to apathy or justifications of social Darwinism?

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