Arlington is a gestural portrait of the fracturing of humanity's thrashing, failing vertical urge, against a pervasive but unseen example of Nietzsche's Master Morality. A triptych of scenes builds to a kind of narrative coherence, but there's a violence and anger at work which struggles to burst out from within the structure. There are unanswered questions which we have to try and unpick, but the emotional punch of this work is in the whole impressionistic sweep of the three scenes together.
Memory is a fuel here... the characters, trapped, are one by one driven by a Voice - at first Hugh O'Connor's, and later that of an unseen woman - headlong into not just remembering, but intensely reliving the past. Could this be the necessary distraction of Soma required to keep them from confronting the god-awful present of their three wretchedly isolated lives? This is the death of the class struggle - there is no class any more, no possibility for collective action. Or any kind of action outside the lab rat maze of the towering city. As a result, what hint of transcendence the characters achieve is rendered pathetic and depressing and minute, and hopeless. The only freely accessible opportunity is to rush faster towards a cliff that you can clearly see ahead. Connections and evocations between people are made to be ruined in front of us. The past is sacred, richly coloured, and useless - just a shadow of my wound. The present is an enormity, barbaric and unattainable. And the future is only for the obliviously ignorant to look forward to. It's hard to argue against the logic of this angst. The three characters' escape from the two room set, if it happens, is not going to be easy. They are cowed and unknowingly beaten, impotently sounding the limits of their lives with insane cyclical movement.
Splodges of speech carry wavelengths of the unspeakable which words cannot contain. Some of the music slightly overbalanced this unspeakability, lending unnecessary emotional direction. This belongs more with the seductively lying Voice, and less with the truthful anguish of the actors. But while occasional narrative hints might leave an audience member looking for unnecessary resolution, the panic in the writing drives it urgently forward.
Charlie Murphy's character recreates childhood memory, but is stuck in a vacuum of looped yearning for something that the murderous Voice will never allow her. Hugh O'Connor is pliant, hopeful, decent, a kicked dog hoping that around the next corner will be something better. And he too is eventually forced into the past. Oonagh Doherty, the embodiment of explosive anima, sweeps poignant memory and desperation into a suicidal tornado.
The spectacularly executed waiting-room set points to a Ballard-like sterility and control. A cramped side-room, reminiscent of a cluttered listening-space from The Conversation, is where power is wielded. But not the ultimate power... everyone, on every side, is expendable. Surface-mapped projections make us disbelieve our own eyes. Absurd songs burst in and ruin our plans for the characters. The inexorable meat-grinder of the characters' futures - our futures? - is exposed and shoved grossly in our faces.
Politics and technology are in the DNA of Arlington. It clearly points to the implications of the real-life machinery now in train which may prove inimical and irrevocable for us, while the urgency of our own private needs and desires keeps us busy. The failure of coherent collective action by the powerless is there too, and trust in those who should not be trusted.
But its real strength lies in its underlying emotional direction. At its best, there are moments where choreography and words and sound blend into a glitchy barren manifestation. There are echoes of Beckett's sculptures of pointlessness, of Pinter's bleak concern for humanity, but Walsh's structures are not time-honed and carved, they are urgently jagged, like broken bones. Despite the fact that humanity's toil, its extremity, dirt and various repressed emotions have thus far failed to lead us to a happy peaceful Shangri La, still, the work got made. This isn't quite a death notice for humanity, but perhaps a depressing diagnosis. The success - the optimism, if there is any - of Arlington lies not in its overt messages but in the articulation of underlying despair which these themes have caused, rushing out through words, movement and images.
Bryan for DRAFF
Arlington by Enda Walsh, co-produced by Landmark Productions and Galway International Arts Festival, runs at the Abbey Theatre until February 25th 2017.
Posted on February 16th 2017.