AbbeyCalling: The theatre has just been to me

In September I optimistically bought a ticket for this year’s production of ‘Dracula’. It was no surprise however, when it was postponed to next year because of the Plague.

At the start of the pandemic I was fairly conscientious about watching online performances of staged shows and leaving contributions, to help the performers whose livelihoods have been rippled from them thanks to the big disease with a beer’s name. As the year progressed my enthusiasm wilted. Watching a screened performance of live theatre is nowhere near as thrilling as the real thing. It’s no reflection on the performers who continue to put in their best efforts. It’s just not the same. The smell, atmosphere and electricity of sitting in a darkened theatrre watching the actors thesping their dramatic hearts out simply cannot be replicated on a computer screen. Television and film are for the screen. Theatre needs the adrenaline shot of being up close to the performance.

The only shows I have seen live since March are ‘The Happy Prince’ by the Bewley’s Cafe Theatre in the Irish Georgian Society building in August, and ‘The Druid Gregory’ by the Druid Theatre in Coole Park in Galway in September. Both were staged during that narrow window when live shows were permitted with strict physical distancing measures in place.

Yesterday during an idle moment at work I checked out the Abbey Theatre website. It advertised a production called ‘AbbeyCalling’. This is a new initiative where actors perform a monologue, poem, song or book excerpt to individual audience members. Over the telephone. Depending on availability you can select the piece you would like performed. At the assigned time, your phone will ring, and a star of the Irish stage will practice their craft at the other end of the telephone line. In return you make a contribution to the mental health charity Aware. Bespoke, one-one-one theatre. What an interesting idea. I don’t mind if I do.

Looking down the list of options, one title stood out – namely ‘You can’t have Christmas without brussels sprouts’ which is an extract from the Anne Enright book ‘The Green Road’. This describes the Murphy family Christmas with an eerie precision. December 25th is the only day of the year that sprouts are cooked at Casa Murphy. Each person at the table receives a feast of Christmas goodness; along with a solitary sprout. This, in turn is surrendered to our brother – the only person who can stomach them.

At 5pm today, my phone rang. It was Aisling O’Sullivan – who has an impressive resume. We chatted for a couple of minutes. She then performed the piece. It concerned a woman from Ennis named Constance, as she navigates her stress-filled Christmas shop in the supermarket, in the days running up to Christmas. She frantically dashes up and down the aisles, trying to remember everything her husband and three children will need. It’s only when driving home does she remember that her mother Rosaleen insists on sprouts each Yuletide dinner – despite the fact that nobody else likes them.

It was very entertaining. I placed my phone on mute during the performance – the cacaphony of traffic and seagulls out the window might have been distracting for the actor I guess. The performance was funny, engaging and painted a vivid mental picture of a stressful time. When it was over my comment was ‘Jesus, why was she putting herself under so much pressure. I was getting palpitations for her’.

It was a slightly surreal experience, having an actor calling my phone and reading a story. It was also very lovely and festive. Completely different from a live show but a wonderful alternative until the Plague disappears.

I may book another. Recommended.

‘AbbeyCalling’ runs until Saturday. Check http://www.abbeytheatre.ie for details.

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