Theatre review: This Beautiful Virtual Village
The Covid-19 lockdown has been challenging for the arts, for theatre and live music, challenging for everyone in many ways. As far as the arts are concerned there has been no shortage of effort made to embrace new technology, with artists performing from their own living rooms and collaborating through Zoom conference calls. There has however been little that has really suited the reduced small box medium or shown any imagination to elevate a work to a new level. Finally, in Lisa Tierney-Keogh's This Beautiful Virtual Village, we have a work that rises to the challenge and indeed exploits the limitations imposed to genuinely craft something fresh rather than just being a pale version of the real thing.
Already a successful and Irish Times award-winning play presented at the Abbey Theatre in Dublin in 2019, This Beautiful Village has been subtly tweaked to bring it up to date with the virtual lockdown world that we are all gradually but not entirely comfortably becoming accustomed to living in. More than just a piece of filmed theatre, This Beautiful Virtual Village uses the technology available to consider the challenges, pressures and issues that many of the issues facing us or people like us today while in lockdown. While the world seems to be falling apart around us, we seem now to be even more powerless now to do anything about it.
There was a sense of that in the original play, in which a group of middle-class south Dubliners gather for an urgently convened residents' committee meeting to discuss what should be done about a particularly appalling piece of foul-mouthed and offensive graffiti that has appeared on a wall in this respectable and affluent part of the city. Some of the residents - mostly the men - advocate simply just painting over it, while others - mostly the women - are concerned that the attitudes expressed in the writing are a sign of deeper issues of misogyny and racism in society that need to be addressed. There's a lot of satire of middle-class morality and self-righteousness in the play, but the matters it discusses aren't parochially confined to south Dublin, but in a much wider context where as well as much ineffectual liberal hand-wringing, there are genuine concerns about the state of the world today.
This Beautiful Village is one of those plays that gives you the impression that all you need to do is get a bunch of broadly defined characters together in a room (or a virtual room) and the play almost writes itself. There's definitely something of that, each of the characters very much created to have specific traits and prejudices that are bound to result in conflict with those of an 'opposite persuasion', but that by no means takes away from how real and prejudiced some of those traits are, how recognisable they are and how often they are excused as just banter between friends.
Seeing this as almost self-writing is also a disservice to the six actors, or perhaps it's a credit to them that this seems to flow perfectly naturally with not a hint of 'acting' involved. It can't be easy to take stage performances down to size on a screen where each of the characters remain visible at all times (barring a few walk-outs and trips to the fridge or wine-cellar), but you get the impression that this is a real-time conversation, unedited between real people. It feels utterly authentic and naturally performed. There are a few moments of manipulated drama and 'speechifying' , but you get the impression that there are one or two characters who love the sound of their own voice and having a platform where they can express their views and challenge others.
So yes, the play takes a few predictable swipes at male aggression and the patriarchy, the men more prone to 'mansplaining' (even mansplaining 'mansplaining' in one brilliant moment), making asinine comments and holding regressive views (or patronisingly progressive views), and it leans far more favourably towards the women being more balanced and reasonable, the play itself even maybe resorting to sanctimonious pontificating of the kind it purports to satirise. You'd have to be blind or not visited any social media over the last coupe of years however to think that these views don't still exist (even in Ireland!) and if it takes a bit of exaggeration to highlight them, that doesn't seem to me to be a problem. At the very least it's a 'talking point' play, one that you can think about later and weigh up the merits for yourself. Plays that entertain to this level and give you something to think about at the same time are rare enough, and despite a few 'mic drop' grandstanding moments, This Beautiful Virtual Village doesn't hand it to you on a plate but encourages you to weight up the merits of the 'debate' for yourself.
And indeed the play does seem to gain something extra from being reduced down to the small screen and presented under lockdown conditions. The use of technology emphasises the feeling of being locked down and boxed in even further into a narrow view of the world. That unfortunately, for us as well as for theatre, is a reality that we are likely to have to live with for a while yet. It may be a while before an audience (or a residents' association) can get together in a group environment, but Lisa Tierney-Keogh and the Abbey have shown with This Beautiful Virtual Village that there are other streaming options available that might not necessarily be a solution that can replace the traditional live theatre, but it is a complementary option that is worth developing if it can be as creative with the medium as this.
This Beautiful Virtual Village is available to view online until 17th September. Details of how to view are available here
Philip: Steve Blount
Maggie: Pom Boyd
Liz: Amy Conroy
Dara: Michael Ford-FitzGerald
Paul: Luke Griffin
Grace: Bethan Mary-James
Writer: Lisa Tierney-Keogh
Director: David Horan
Set Design: Ciaran Bagnall
Costume Design: Katie Davenport
Lighting Design: Sarah Jane Shiels
Composer & Sound Design: Carl Kennedy
Voice Director: Andrea Ainsworth
Dramaturg: Louise Stephens
Casting (2020): Sarah Jones
Casting (2019): Amy Rowan