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Hammam review: Louise Lowe’s terrifying immersive play reinforces Anu’s singular position in Irish theatre

Theatre: The writer and director transforms an unrecognisable Peacock venue into the Battle of Dublin in 1922


Peacock stage, Abbey Theatre, Dublin

Anu conclude their epic series of 22 projects marking the Decade of Centenaries with a terrifying immersion that reinforces the company’s singular position in Irish theatre.

We are in the Battle of Dublin, in 1922, at the Hammam Hotel & Turkish Baths on what is now O’Connell Street, within the block the anti-Treaty forces have taken, as Cathal Brugha and a smattering of fighters wrestle with the inevitable. A group of women are barely surviving a fading mantra of solidarity, the sense of comradeship straining to a choking tautness. All is loud, all is tense.

The small audience for this Anu and Abbey coproduction is led down steps and through concrete-walled corridors to a makeshift field hospital, a sauna, a bedroom, bearing witness to a moment on the edge, a city teetering on collapse. There is barely a second to consider the eye-widening deconstruction and reconstruction of the Peacock space – which is not as anyone has ever known it – when Ella Lily Hyland glowers and reels, untethered, frenetic, as the end comes ever closer. This is the first of a series of remarkable moments in an often overwhelmingly compelling experience.

Within this maze-like spectacle – Where are we? Which direction are we going in? Is there any way out at all? – Louise Lowe, the production’s writer and director, remains fiercely attentive to detail and to the visceral human experience of history. Collapses and circuit-breakers occur constantly: Ghaliah Conroy’s breath-holding movement in one striking piece of choreography; Darragh Feehely’s strange and beautiful monk; Robbie O’Connor’s remarkable embodiment of a stoic rebel suppressing panic; Úna Kavanagh’s capacity to imbue the strange with calm.


When Peter Rothwell’s captured fighter attempts to navigate his own silent shock and fear while being threatened by Sarah Morris’s defiant, resentful interrogator, he somehow ends up with a small scissors behind his back, holding it with a shaking hand, turning it over. Attack or let go? Fight or surrender?

Ciaran Bagnall’s extraordinary lighting design, the mind-bending set design of Owen Boss and Maree Kearns, the brooding music by Rob Moloney, the perfect sound design of Kevin Gleeson and the brilliant costume design of Saileóg O’Halloran – each character distinct in the subterranean gloom – combine to outstanding effect.

At times, despite one or two slips into exposition, not everything is clear. Perhaps this is less of a flaw and more a consequence of a sort of double immersion: Anu’s in their work and the audience’s in its manifestation. It’s a testament to the scale and flow of the piece that this search for context actually adds momentum.

Spilling out on to the street afterwards, the grey sky has already turned to a tobacco-stained gloom. To create a sense of immersion inside a venue is one thing; to create one that stays with the audience even once they have left is quite another. Anu have again attuned us not just to the past but also to the present, and to the city as a stage for ever-unfurling drama.

Una Mullally

Una Mullally

Una Mullally, a contributor to The Irish Times, writes a weekly opinion column