A review by one of the lucky ones who experienced Gabriel Byrne’s new play in Dublin!
I first met Jojanneke van den Bosch in Bray, just outside Dublin, in 2013, when we both attended the premiere of the documentary film Behind the Sword in the Stone (now called Excalibur: Behind the Movie), about the making of Gabriel’s first film, Excalibur. That was an exciting time! She credits Gabriel Byrne with inspiring her to finish writing her book. I love that. Jojanneke was fortunate enough to attend Gabriel’s play in Dublin and she shares her experience with us here. Thank you for your thoughtful and insightful essay, Jojanneke, and I wish you continued success in your creative endeavors! –Stella heart
All words and photographs, with the exception of the one noted, are Jojanneke’s.
Some performances travel with you for days, sometimes years. Gabriel Byrne’s performance in the theatre adaptation of his memoir Walking With Ghosts is profoundly personal. He shares much of himself. Bravely, and generously.
Entering the Gaiety Theatre in Dublin, after not having gone anywhere at all in well over two years, was a real treat. The gorgeous design, and the intimate setting of the stage and the audience, create a sense of instant bonding, togetherness. Theaters in Ireland are somewhat of an extension of one’s living room. I wasn’t the only one who felt like a bear just out of hibernation. It had been years. It felt fantastic. People on my row had traveled for quite some time to be able to witness Gabriel’s play.
The stage and sound design on the Gaiety stage were exceptionally well conceptualized and created. The dark broken mirror behind Gabriel reflected him on the back. This could be interpreted in more ways than one. You might see his reflection as a ghost from the person who he was himself, years ago. Or as shards from the man who carried ghosts with him throughout the years. Or as reflections of different facets of the same person. The audience saw him in real life, present, and close by, while at the same time, we saw fragments in the background. Three large frames held his different life experiences together.
It wouldn’t do this play justice to state that this is “a show with a laugh and a cry.” This is a deep dive into a life well lived (and hopefully continued for many years to come). Emotions from a long time ago, that are still present, are being shown with great maturity and brave vulnerability. Writing these memories down may have been a cathartic act for Gabriel at some point. But perhaps this catharsis already took place before he started writing his memoirs. It takes dedication, a mature heart, and at times, some distance to be able to choose what parts of the book to select for the theatre adaptation. The result is incredibly moving, confronting, and powerful.
It is an emotional rollercoaster that keeps you on your toes, and opens the gates to the ghosts in your own life. Gabriel’s words resonate. The scenes are revealing, and sometimes hilarious, but the characters are all portrayed with deep respect and a profound attempt to capture their authenticity, despite the passage of time. This must have been a journey in itself, which goes beyond acting. People you grew up with are not merely words in a script. They are complex personalities, and our emotions for them are often equally complex. So which parts of your grandmother, father, mother, and sister do you show? How do you bring them to life?
The scene of Gabriel with his grandmother at the picture house is colorful. The way he lets the voices and expressions of his grandmother and himself as a little boy, seeing a film in the picture house for the first time, was endearing. The contrast between the comical, endearing situations and the sad, shocking memories couldn’t be greater. It takes courage to show this palette of emotions. Through his generous vulnerability and his search for authenticity, and the resulting powerful performance, we all met him.
Gabriel went super pure in the theatre adaptation of Walking With Ghosts. The purity, sharpness, wit, courage, humor, and life experience resonated with everyone in the audience. He sculpted with language, and used his prosaic language. He opened with the first pages of the book, pretty much word for word, as his script. Along the way, there were fragments of that approach. Also, the fragmented sharing of memories – dare I say “pictures in my head” approach – in the first part of the performance showed the nonlinear way we remember childhood events. Scattered, like broken glass, or confetti, depending on the attached emotion. This also “eased the audience into it.” I can imagine that most of the audience thought “Ah yes, old Dublin, that’s how it was. Yes.”
Some of the Big Intense Moments were, however, also in the first part before the intermission. Tears of emotion, sadness and laughter had already soaked many a face mask at that point.
He was more open (in the book and in the theatre) about growing up in poverty than he had been before. I hadn’t noticed it specifically in his first book, Pictures In My Head. Seeing him pinch a make-believe flea between his fingers showed the truth. And the shame he had felt about it, and the shame for feeling ashamed.
There was courageous depth, tremendous skill, strength and vulnerability in how he chose to embody those scenes – and people. The voices and impersonations of his grandmother, himself as a little boy, his mother and his father, were full of respectful love, without sparing them in confrontation, by showing the truth of what they had done. It takes a very special kind of talent to embody someone else and be the narrator at the same time–and to get away with it. This felt completely natural, and didn’t distract me. The two performances I attended were a lot alike, yet in detail, he diverted. The names he was called by a teacher from the Christian Brothers varied, for example. It must have been horrendous having heard so many nasty words from a teacher.
Gabriel clearly sought long and hard to find a way to address the sexual abuse on stage, and the deep loss of his sister. In both instances, he was concrete and precise, and left theatrical spaces and silence to let the viewer confront and process their meaning. We felt it.
Reading those fragments in his book had already been a piercing experience. Seeing him say these words and acting them out in the intimate setting of the theatre was confronting, painful, impressive, and incredibly brave. It’s a great thing that he shared this the way he did. I have no doubt that this performance helps people on the healing path. People who have been through abuse, as many of us have. It’s as Leonard Cohen wrote: “There is a crack in everything / that’s how the light gets in.” The love for these people from the past that live on in one’s heart remains, with the stories resonating. The same goes for traumatic experiences, but loaded with an intensely different emotion. There is no place for haunting ghosts in the light. This is what we saw on stage, and Gabriel addressed this in his own very personal words in the final part of his performance.
Casting light on ghosts in the dark reminded me of a short interview from 2011, when a journalist asked Gabriel about his motivation for co-directing the play “James X,” featuring Mannix Flynn, which is about what silence does to a survivor of sexual abuse. Gabriel’s powerful words in that interview were something along the lines of “We lie by silence, and silence is the enemy. If we would shove this under the rug, we’d be guilty by collusion.” That’s all I needed to hear to get into action mode. This short video interview (in my memory it was about two minutes) that I once randomly stumbled upon online became the instant trigger to finish writing my first book that I had put aside for two years. Within five months after hearing that soundbite, my book was complete, written, edited, printed and published. And now, nine years later, we’re half-way through the process of changing orphans’ rights in my country.
I believe that more people in the audience in the Gaiety last week might feel the urge to bravely speak up about things they have experienced in their lives. To heal, to find their own peace of mind, but also to heal something in other people’s lives. To make a change. To do something constructive, by transforming something excruciatingly painful into something priceless. This is what art can achieve: inspiring others to take action. I hope Gabriel realizes that his courageous sharing of his experience has a positive impact. What he went through wasn’t for nothing. These experiences have meaning.
After the performance, many people stood outside the theatre to process things, and to chat some more. I met Sharon and Patrick, two kind people I hadn’t met before. We started talking about the play, and how we had experienced it. It had been Patrick’s second visit. Within a couple of minutes, we discovered that all three of us are orphans, we all had lost our parents within a few months of each other. “We’re the circle of orphans,” Sharon said. Right she was. All three of us know what it is like to ‘call 555-Heaven’ every once in a while. Also, we recognised the depth of emotion we saw on stage. Grief, loss, and that lingering search for belonging after being uprooted all rang so very true to us.
There is a precious gem hidden in adversity. The reason it is precious is because it takes courage and resilience to dig it up and look at it in bright light.
This experience will travel with me for quite some time. Hopefully, many more people will have the opportunity to see this performance in real theaters. Thankfully, Landmark Productions decided to make a recording of one of the performances temporarily available for online streaming. I think that’s a lovely gesture.
Feed your soul. Book that ticket.
Jojanneke van den Bosch