There exists a deep kinship between Australia and Ireland.
The Irish fled to Australia in huge numbers escaping poverty, the potato famine and following rebellion for independence. By the end of the 19th century, a third of Australia’s population were Irish-born.
Along with the Irish population boom, the Irish brand of Catholicism also flourished. Throughout the 20th century, the Catholic church in Australia grew in power, property, influence and money.
But this century has brought with it a reckoning, as clerical sexual abuse scandals in Ireland and Australia have been uncovered on an industrial scale, and the Irish catholic community must confront the horrors. Both countries have held widespread investigations into the abuse, as they’ve undergone a profound crisis of faith.
If times of upheaval are reflected in art, what art comes from this?
Swan Lake/Loch na hEala, which opened at Perth festival on Thursday, is an imaginative, deeply moving response to clerical sexual abuse, which comes from Ireland. It received a standing ovation, and left me eager to see what the Australian arts community may produce in response to our own crisis in the church, and the stories uncovered by the royal commission.
This is by no means a traditional staging of the much-loved ballet: created by director Michael Keegan-Dolan, and given a five-star review by the Guardian when it premiered in London in 2016, Swan Lake/ Loch na hEala incorporates spoken word, dance and theatre and is set in the bleak but beautiful Irish midlands.
Instead of Tchaikovsky’s famous score, Irish-Nordic folk music, played live on stage by the trio Slow Moving Clouds, provides both an unsettling and uplifting role.
In this retelling, the villain is a Catholic priest who, having sexually abused Fionnuala – a young girl famed for her singing and wild dancing – turns the girl and her sisters into swans so that they cannot reveal his secret.
Condemned to a lake in the midlands, they encounter a depressed 36-year-old Irishman, Jimmy. He had wandered across the fields late at night, intending to kill himself, when he meets the swan.
The dance between Jimmy and the white swan is the most tender part of the performance, and a powerful contrast with the vulgarity and darkness all around him. His home is about to be destroyed by a corrupt councillor, while his mother puts on a booze-soaked birthday party to snap him out of his depression.
And on this iteration at the Perth festival, the show is as tight as a drum.
A standout is Mikel Murfi, who takes multiple roles – including the paedophile priest – and who we first see as we enter the auditorium. He is naked except for some grungy underpants; he has a rope around his neck tied to a brick and is grunting and yelling. Is he man or animal? The scene concludes with him being knocked around by dancers wearing dark suits. On the ground, he is wrestled, then washed and put in a suit.
Is it redemption? Or is it the start of his corruption? We don’t get a clear answer in this production.
But it brings us right into the heart of evil at the hands of the church – and shows us how there might be some way out.