In Irish Repertory Theatre’s The Cordelia Dream, the man and the woman have no names. After all, audiences know who they represent: Lear and Cordelia, father and daughter, ruler of a kingdom and powerless pawn. Devoid of the classic play’s context, they are engaged in a tug-of-war between artistry and mastery, submission and absorption. A real family connection emerges—or is it merely Man’s previous position as star and Woman’s as protegee? And what does Woman’s recurring Shakespearian nightmare mean?
The production unfolds through Beckett-esque dialogue, each statement diving into the human, the hurt, and the sublime while spiralling indirectly between topics and themes. Marina Carr’s writing emphasises Man’s grandeur as well as his foibles, never cancelling out his ground-breaking artistic achievements with his poor personal behaviour (while audiences never see these stories triumphs from the character’s past, Stephen Brennan’s performance perfectly convinces as a man living on the reverence he earned and the fear he demanded). At the same time, Danielle Ryan gives Woman a crisp voice and dignified manner, letting filial and mentee affection drip through the cracks.
The text’s philosophical wonderings and intense personal questioning shift the power balance organically even as the dialogue remains artistically stilted. This is a play full of ambiguity and the impossibility of satisfaction, one that would not work as well in naturalism. Carr ideally judges the artifice to retain emotional connection and provoke thought—a head and heart engagement that eludes Man and Woman in their conflict.
The play was filmed at the New Theatre Dublin, but despite its location-bound scenes it feels intimate, almost cinematic. Director Joe O’Byrne stays tight on his two actors, working mostly in mid-length to close-up shots where the characters have nowhere to hide. It is an unorthodox technique for theatrical filming, which often stays wide to give the effect of an audience view, but the choice keeps the at-home audience uncomfortably, atmospherically in this search for meaning and answers. The chiaroscuro lighting superbly illustrates shifts in power and morality between Man and Woman. It is an exceptional instance of filmed theatre that uses the tools and challenges of an altered medium and mode of experience to heighten the stakes of its story.
The Irish Repertory Theatre’s commitment to championing the art form in today’s challenging circumstances comes through from the first moments of The Cordelia Dream. Their broadcast opens with an evocation of Ireland’s great dramatists and a plea for audiences to explore their works after Carr’s new writing. Their website has a dedicated ‘Theatre At Home’ kit, giving geographically diverse audiences access to playbills, discussions, videos with the cast and creative team, and background information on Shakespeare’s tragedy. This admirable addition showcases the company’s dedication to keeping theatre as immediate in its filmed form as it is in person. In its intimacy and classic scope, The Cordelia Dream could not be a better match for the company or its new, unique format.
Progress and closure feel impossible throughout The Cordelia Dream, but at the play’s conclusion the long-held threat of artistic and personal annihilation feels strangely hopeful. Carr’s beautifully judged words and two understated performances highlight the creative potential of destruction, bringing an unexpected catharsis to a tale famously devoid of such.
The Cordelia Dream is available to watch from 27 July-8 August.
Words by Carmen Paddock
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Image Credit: Irish Rep