On a cold Thursday evening at Letterkenny's An Grianan Theatre, the foyer suddenly explodes into life as the auditorium doors open and a packed house emerges into the foyer, post performance, somewhat dazed, clearly enervated, and lightly coated in a dusting of what appear to be feathers.
They talk excitedly among themselves about the show they've just experienced - Loch na hEala, choreographer Michael Keegan-Dolan's unique take on Swan Lake, in hushed, near-reverential tones. Some refer to it as the best thing they've ever seen. It's hard to disagree with them. Its fair to say that, above all else, they've collectively experienced something they won't forget anytime soon.is quite the experience.
This week sees the return to the Dublin stage of Keegan-Dolan's production, following a sold out run at the 2016 Dublin Theatre Festival, for a two-week run at the Abbey. To call it the hottest ticket in town would be perhaps the mildest of understatements. Winner of the Best Production Award at the 2017 Irish Times Theatre Awards, Keegan-Dolan relocates Swan Lake to the Midlands of Ireland, imagining a place where ancient mythology and the modern world collide in a manner both brutal and beautiful. In its unflinching portrait of the mundane brutality of Irish rural despair, at times the production evokes key works like Donal Ryan's novel The Thing About December and Lenny Abrahamson's film Garage, finding a casual surreality, a bleak beauty, in the most seemingly mundane of interactions.
An international cast of dancers is anchored by a single actor - the venerable Mikel Murfi, a regular collaborator of late with Enda Walsh on works like The Last Hotel, Ballyturk and The New Electric Ballroom. Here, he portrays a number of different characters, sometimes in the same scene, each of them vividly drawn, from the hilarious to the utterly terrifying. It's a virtuoso performance from one of Ireland's finest actors.
And then there's the dancing. While this Swan Lake bares little resemblance to any previous production you may have encountered - if anything, at moments it tips the hat to Darren Aronofsky's celluloid fever dream Black Swan - it certainly doesn't skip on the show-stopping set-pieces, offering one incandescent dance sequence after another. While the (very) odd punter might lament the absence of Tchaikovsky from the soundtrack, the live score provided by Dublin-based minimalists Slow Moving Clouds is a wonder. I can't remember the last time a show veered from tragedy to sheer, absolute joy with such effortless panache, earning its laughter and tears. The feathers helped. Which is were we came in.
The Founder and Artistic Director of Fabulous Beast Dance Theatre, Longford native Keegan-Dolan has been a major artist for almost two decades now, winning international kudos for shows like Giselle (2003), The Rite of Spring (2009) and Rian (2011) - this might just be his masterpiece. In the coming weeks, following the Abbey run, Swan Lake/Loch na hEala will travel to a number of towns in and around the counties that influence and inform its dynamic - among them Newbridge, Sligo, Mullingar, Drogheda and Virginia, Co. Cavan - giving rural audiences the welcome opportunity to experience magic. The night after the Letterkenny performance, I encountered a man about to drive three hours to the next night's performance, in Roscommon, in order for his wife to see the show. I couldn't fault his decision. And wanted to see if they had an extra seat in the car.
Seize the opportunity to catch this show - this moment in Irish theatre - while you can.
At the Abbey Theatre, Dublin, until February 17th, then touring - more details here.