Frank McGuinness’ The Dead at the Abbey Theatre

The Dead opens with a scene that is reminiscent of a Dickens story, with a full cast in evening dress. That is, until you hear the words they sing: ‘Oh ye dead!… Why leave you thus your graves?’ It is the right note to strike, however, for this dramatisation of Dubliners most famous story. The Dead revives a Dublin society so removed from today’s that it seems foreign: the dances, the dress, the appreciation of a tenor voice. David Bolger’s graceful choreography suits this setting; for this society is a gracious and mannered one, on the surface at least. The parlour manners themselves are theatrical, as girls gossip and titter about a twice-worn gown, and coversational faux-pas are politely and pointedly ignored.

The production is steeped in music, only fitting for the household of the musical Morkans. Frank McGuiness incorporated the songs of Thomas Moore, as well as Shakespeare and Joyce himself, and with Conor Linehan’s fitting compositions, the music is woven through the production. This musicality is fitting, not only as it elucidates the society we are presented with, but as it is so crucial to the story itself; the songs of death far outweigh those of love.

Frank McGuiness’ dramatisation captures the tone of the story accurately, most especially the personal disappointments, fears and memories of the characters, contrasted with the brightness of celebration and merry-making. Aunt Julia (Anita Reeves) is poignant as she sings her party piece ‘Arrayed for the Bridal’, her niece, Mary Jane (Alison McKenna) is determinedly cheerful and oft-slighted as ‘main prop’ of the household. Rosaleen Linehan and Lorcan Cranitch shine as mother and son, with a wonderful comic dynamic that reveals humour as well as character. The party scenes are given life and liveliness through its dramatisation; it is only when Gabriel (Stanley Townsend) and Gretta (Deirbhle Crotty) are alone in their hotel room that it falters even slightly. The intimacy between man and wife sits somewhat uncomfortably here, as does Crotty’s sorrowing over the boy who died for her. But is in Gabriel’s last, famous soliloquy which falls just short of the epiphany that his written character undergoes.

It may strange that this production is the Abbey’s festive offering, and yet it captures more accurately than any heartwarming tale the true emotions that can run through such a time of celebration. The Dead is a story imbued with sadness, the sadness of midwinter and mortality which can only be faced with a collective effort of light and music. As the snow softly falls on the national stage, one can feel the audience draw together in a shiver of appreciation for the living.

Clara Kumagai

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