Promotional art for Vardo. Having 'the look of the Diamond' has given Louise Lowe a sense of permission to make the Monto Cycle this far. The ANU director talks about how the final chapter has led the company into a darker and more dangerous place than before.
We've visited brothels and laundries, been pulled into cars, given gifts of carbolic soap, recorded brutal beatings on the street, and been caught in the blast radius of a bomb. Now it's time for ANU Productions' accomplished Monto Cycle of plays about Dublin's hidden histories to come to an end.
Director Louise Lowe, excitable and articulate, retains sweet composure in the midst of a creative process bolder and more dangerous than any she's been involved in before. Finishing the quadrilogy hasn't been easy: "I don't know why I thought I would have been able to wrap it up in a bow".
In early 2010, Lowe and visual artist Owen Boss found themselves snowed in at Robert Wilson's Water Mill Centre in New York. While waiting for the thaw, discussing ideas and influences (Lowe was absorbed by The Wire at the time), a seed was planted: "I was thinking about making a four part project that would somehow look at the history of an area". Choosing the Monto district in north-east inner city Dublin as its subject, ANU developed a form of site-specific theatre that transported and implicated audiences as they witnessed 100 years of history fold in on itself.
For the first time in the cycle - which to date has marked the area as a 19th century red-light district in World's End Lane, then regenerated into a centre for Catholic rehabilitation in Laundry, and becoming a 1970s post-dockworker community fractured by crime and heroin in Boys of Foley Street - Lowe is faced with a certain unease. "I've really felt I've had permission to make the other pieces. I don't necessarily feel I have the authority to make this one".
Up until the final chapter, Vardo (premiering Sept 25), Lowe's authority has been derived from genetics as well as extensive research. During last year's Living the Lockout exhibition at 14 Henrietta Street, she was approached by a stranger who said "You've the look of the Diamond about you. You can see it in your skin". "This terrified me" she admits. The Diamond is an old name for a specific area surrounding Gloucester Place. It is also where Lowe's grandmother lived.
While the cycle has shaped itself to map four re-zonings of the area, its starting point was to make plays about three individuals whom have personal significance, specifically Lowe's grandmother who lived in red-light Monto, a friend's aunt who disappeared in a Magdalene Laundry in the 1960s, and her best friend's grandmother Terriss Lee, who was a Romani gypsy fortune-teller.
"It's always been in our minds that Vardo [which is a Romani horse-drawn wagon] would be about Terriss and her family's journey as people from the outside".
It probably would have been deeply alchemical - transforming them, as individuals who kept their traditions alive, into a metaphor for multiculturalism in the area. In fact, Terriss has been secretly present in the cycle all along - her tarot cards were used in World's End Lane, a song of her's was sung by a woman stripping in the same play, as well by a rebellious girl in a confession box in Laundry, and a recording of it played while a fight broke out in a flat in Boys of Foley Street. These motifs suggest that the director has been certain of her endgame all along. What was unprecedented was the darker and more dangerous place that her research has led her to. While she promises that Vardo will also include the mysterious spectre of Terriss Lee, Lowe is no longer convinced that her's is the most important story.
Of the people currently living in the area, the census reveals that 70% are not originally from Ireland. After five years of working in the area, Lowe doesn't find this percentage reflected in the streets, and she became curious as to why they are invisible. After consulting with historians, schools and politicians, they've learned that many are living in gated communities. There is also the discovery of those operating in the area, temporarily and undocumented, as part of a rising industry of sex-workers. It presents a startling reality: the Monto is back.
Catching up with the present has presented new challenges. "It's been very easy to look at history and find these extraordinary characters" she says. "As it's getting closer to the present day, that's harder to do because you're making pieces of work about people who are still alive".
It begs the question of why we should look at them? It was important to visit the brutal reality of a red light district which we widely recall nostalgically in song. It was vital to step behind the heavy doors of the Magdalene Laundry and witness the experiences of those inside. It was necessary to reassess how the community dealt with the Concerned Parents Against Drugs movement in the 1970s. Taking undocumented workers as part of its focus, there is risk that Vardo will expose people for whom it is in their interest to stay hidden. The company have been questioning why it should be witnessed at all and the director admits "It's been harder than ever".
Negotiating people who operate in the space has also proven more difficult. "In the past we've been able to follow the power", says Lowe, who knocked on every door of the Liberty House flats to ask permission to make Boys of Foley Street. She maintains that ANU couldn't have made the work they have without an understanding from the local community about her family connections to the area. "It's only because they can look at you and go: 'I know who you are. I know who your granny is. You've the look of the Diamond about you". This time around, having to negotiate a criminal element that are mostly non-Irish and to whom she is unknown, Lowe's 'look of the Diamond' will only get her so far.
Speaking warmly and intelligibly, you'd doubt she'll lose her nerve, and in the run-up to the final hurdle she is immensely proud. "It's been an extraordinary journey" she says in wonderment. Does this mean that after completing the cycle ANU will break from the area? After all, they've proved their mobility after having recently fitted a site-specific performance in Manchester, and they're currently in development for a project as part of Limerick's City of Culture later in the year.
"I feel most at home here. If there's the right show to do here, definitely. But there's a big world out there, and there are stories to be told everywhere. I think the area needs a break from us!"
There is still the business of one last story, one that is mostly invisible and communicates secretly. We leave The Lab arts space and join the crowds on Talbot St. Walking ahead is a drab man wearing a grey tracksuit. He halts and responds, in a Dublin accent, to the black man across the road calling determinedly to him, in a tone more like a command than a greeting. They stop and speak low enough to be drowned out by the noise of the street. Lowe, knowing and glowing, turns to me and says:
"That's it. That's Vardo".
Vardo runs Sept 25-Oct 12 at Oonagh Young Gallery. Tickets available at dublintheatrefestival.com.