Theatre Review by Frances Devlin-Glass
Dylan Coburn Gray: Citysong, Williamstown Little Theatre, directed by Shirley Sydenham, 7 September 2022
Twelve hours after leaving the theatre and I’m fully pumped by what I saw at Williamstown Little Theatre. Citysong is theatrical epic performance piece (running 90 minutes without an interval – great decision) that mesmerised its audience (I eavesdropped in the foyer later and on the way back to my car). All praise to the daring of Williamstown’s play selection committee for staging the Australian première of a show that will, I believe, become a classic. It’s an urban updating of Under Milkwood (its closest equivalent), but with a focus less on the village than on the family over time. Despite its literary legacies (Joyce gets in there too), it is utterly original, very Dublin, and entirely universal in its concerns.
Dylan Coburn Gray (could he escape the Dylan Thomas legacy with such a moniker?) is young. The play was written when he was 22, in 2017, and by then he was a veteran of youth theatre, having graduated from Trinity in 2014. It premiered at the Abbey in 2019 and went on the West End and garnered prizes and admiration. This very young man knows youth culture, but that does not exclude him from the culture of older generations, and the miracle of this play is the maturity that a lifetime of eavesdropping in cafes and buses and trams confers on him. The image of the taxi-driver with which the play opens casts some light on Dylan Coburn Gray’s scripting methodology – ‘oneshots’, ‘not-much-more-than-ten-minute-or-a-fiver-fares’. What the play offers is the writer’s absorption in the day-to-day realities of the residents of Dublin, through the taxi-driver’s speculations about the back-stories and meanings of the minute slices he is dished up in the back seat of his cab in delivering a patron to a date or home misery-sodden after a break-up. The foreplay he observes that is more like five-play in the turbulence of modern Dublin.
The play luxuriates in language, over-the-top excess, mellifluousness and charged poetry, and at the same time is grounded in bodies, sex, sweat, performance anxieties and failures, the gritty realities of a city in perpetual flux and recurring crises, the Global Financial Crisis being the latest. It piles on linguistic richness, is intentionally wordy, convoluted, fast and more than the sum of its parts. It revels in language itself, and Dubliners’ enjoyment of it for its own sake, what he calls in his notes to actors, ‘Embracing the Fact You’re a Wanker’, but it is emphatically not stage-Irish. ‘Commentary without ridicule’. It’s a deep immersion in the Liffey of Life and its many languages.
The play is performed by a chorus on a rudimentary stage design (a map of Dublin, a box, some stairs and some symbolic scaffolding, supplemented by three video screens – all praise to the designers, especially Jason Bouviaird’s lighting). The chorus is not given character names, though they might have been, and that’s because they play many characters across three generations, both male and female. How they learnt such an overloaded script (the programme credits three rehearsal prompters) moves back and forwards in time and is adamantly non-linear, but they were primed and ready by opening night and will ease deeper into their grooves progressively during the season, and become ever more joyful. It was a monumental team effort, beset by illness and late replacements, not that you’d know.
The play is a palimpsest of three generations of a family, repeating the cycle of life in somewhat changing circumstances, and having to work out how it goes generation by generation. It works in telling cameos. An early one has four women labouring side by side (on said box) in a maternity ward, while a young doctor peers into vaginas offering descriptions of degrees of dilation while the women, in extremis, curse him and know far more than he does about the process, having done it so often, while the men are ‘outsidely time-minding’ (carefully avoiding their wives’ ordeals). Coburn-Gray foregoes the soft-focus of the Johnson & Johnson lies about new motherhood, as Kate, a new mother complains of feeling like ‘a cored apple’ or ‘a cat that’s been …tiretrackedly flattened… its visible guts on the tarmac’. This young writer is aware that husband and wife both speak English but it’s no longer a language comprehensible to the other: birth is ‘such an abnormal enormity’ that even sympathetic men can’t bridge the gap and fear of conception insurmountable. Brigid’s need for a girl-child after three boys becomes clearer: she needs a tribe that shares her experience.
Another wonderful cameo was of the female gossips enthusiastically trading information about how to get on the pill in an era in Ireland when ‘nice doctors’ and bogus claims to ‘irregularity’ were the only way. This, of course, is not so easy for an honest, plainspeaking woman with sexual needs and affection for a husband. His ‘scrotal psychosis’, ‘testeria’ and gonad madness’ have answering needs in her desire to be kissed and more, but their needs are unspeakable. Despite the avalanche of expressive words in this play, it tracks brilliantly the pressures inarticulacy and an inability to voice sexual needs put on relationships. And the ways in which these reticences haunt subsequent generations, down to the third.
The play agilely leaps from comic considerations of ageing and nostalgia to Fionn’s inept first steps into his unfolding sexuality at a city nightclub in Temple Bar. The play ends benignly at a beginning (very Joycean) hedged around with fear and doubt on his parent’s part: ‘Just let him be safe, and happy, and safe….and not be dead and come home not dead by eleven’. This starting point is interestingly different with Jude in the initiating role and the dancing very less couth than their parents’. It seems that guidance into the ways of loving is still as opaque, despite increasing secularisation in Ireland, as the various ‘teen tribes’ that exist, even within a single family.
This was, for me, a deeply energising playscript and performance. Warm congratulations to the players – David Runnalls, Shauna Stanley, Gilbert Gauci, Katherine Hubbard, Kaila Michaels, Marti Ibrahim, and Rhys Carter – who did not let the pace of the liquid words and action falter. In addition warm plaudits to the huge team, led by Shirley Sydenham that let this coruscating script loose in Australia. Dylan Coburn Gray is a major talent to watch and Citysong is a play I’d see over and over, given the chance. I hope we get the chance.
Frances is a member of the Tinteán editorial collective and a theatre-reviewer of many decades.