Before even taking my seat, three times I was warned of the ‘gory content’ in Dylan Tighe’s redubbed rendition of ‘Salò’, or ‘120 Days of Sodom.’ Then announcements made at the start, noting our nearest fire exits, and the two-hour-and-ten minute performance length (sans interval), warned us again that we could leave at any time.
Those familiar with Pasolini’s final film will understand that this performance is not for the faint hearted. Having run since last Thursday, it has received a critical Irish Times review claiming it abuses the relationship between spectator and performer by traumatising its audience.[i]
But abuse, as we so brutally learn, is not something that can be left behind at the theatre door. Abuse is not a choice. And a choice we had – we were reminded of it four times. ‘120 Days of Sodom’ is not a new discovery, nor are the stories echoed from the Magdalene Laundries and Christian Brother schools. So, please be advised: if you think that you can’t handle it, then you probably can’t.
Tighe has no interest in merely entertaining. He seems to have anticipated backlash, telling the Irish Examiner: ‘I was thinking about what it means to be outraged by a representation when there is not as much outrage, culturally, about the facts.’[ii] This is the general theme explored, and it is likely to provoke outrage. I even received a note from my editor afterwards saying: ‘I understand if you had to leave before it was finished.’
On stage, chairs, small screens, bottled water and microphones are set up for the determined and brave cast. Centre stage, an Irish flag is placed on top of a filing drawer. The flag is later dropped on and discarded to access the files. Later, a European Union flag will be draped, notably when the death reports of young refugees are read out in a clinical and matter-of-fact tone.
The film is given a new setting, Sligo – later there’s a nod to W.B. Yeats’s notorious line: ‘Base-born products of base beds’ – and our performers give us sound effects of whimpering, aggressive rape and sniggering, while a scattered script draws together a story based on the brutal scenes unfolding onscreen. Context is built from the verbatim accounts of clinical abuse stories. Parallels are easily and purposefully drawn.
Perhaps the most shocking incident in the film is when a female adolescent is forced to eat the faeces of her abuser. More shocking is the link between that and an exact report of a priest admitting to demanding that a young boy lick faeces off his shoe. ‘I didn’t mean for him to actually do it,’ he says.
Similar accounts are read throughout, oftentimes in upbeat and haughty tones. Tighe has scripted it so that many of the accounts are dubbed over an older, well-dressed courtesan in the film, assumed to signify a nun.
I also questioned: what makes the older women exempt from abuse? Is it merely that they are past the age of abuse, or is it something deeper? Have they already endured something similar? One scene where an older lady is flouncing around in a manic way, and then flashes the crowd of male abusers, signifies the latter.
I found myself waiting in anticipation for the accounts to be read out, for meaning to be given to the disturbing images and events onscreen. Although exercised intelligently, it could have made more sense to stick with one dominant theme: the sexual and physical abuse inflicted on thousands of children by members of the Catholic clergy.
The list of deceased refugee adolescents was, nonetheless, more than moving, like many of the recollections. I cried silently in my seat. And, while I understand this was Tighe’s point – that this is not history, this is present day – it felt too ambitious. Hadn’t we suffered through enough already?
I considered leaving around as many times as I was told that it would be OK if I had to do so. But I stayed. Perhaps because of a feeling that this was necessary. To bear witness to the brutality, to face it without a shield, to remove the mask on the truth.
The play began with an introduction from Tighe himself, addressing the audience in Italian with subtitles onscreen. But one cannot simultaneously look at his facial expressions and read from the subtitles. A choice needs to be made. Similarly, towards the end, as the adolescent characters are shown being abused horrifically, smoke is released onstage, eventually covering the screen, leaving us back in a position of safety.
This subtle occlusion served as a representation of our daily reality. By ‘our’ I really mean those of us who may not have suffered first-hand these harrowing crimes, but who have listened to many accounts. As a telephone counsellor volunteering in the Dublin Rape Crisis Centre, I can say I have listened. I have acknowledged. I have heard stories such as those depicted on onstage. I also appreciated finding the Crisis telephone number listed on a laminated sign in the cubicles after the performance ended.
Yet there was something different to this type of listening, something even more foul-tasting, which is a knowledge that these crimes have not been accounted for. These crimes have been covered up and excused. So much so that it falls to Tighe, and others, to recreate the trauma in order for us to face up to it.
Understandably, this production is not for everyone. But the fact that such a production is being staged in the Abbey – the theatre of Yeats, Synge and Lady Gregory – is significant. An uncomfortable, unpleasant necessity – acting in a way like the Playboy of the Western World questioned other sides of the Irish character. This is why I did not leave.
The performance explores consumption and an inability to satisfy that consumptive greed which seems to accompany positions of power. It led me to question our own present, overwhelming need to consume. The adolescents could easily stand in for how we exploit the Earth’s resources, how we abuse and ignore the plight of wildlife, farm animals – all in the name of perceived necessities that we assume to be needs.
I don’t believe that it is Tighe’s intention to put blame on his audience. Rather, this production demands we ask ourselves ‘what separates us from monsters?’
Pasolini's Salò Redubbed by Dylan Tighe Pics by © Luca Truffarelli.
[ii] Alan O’Riordain, ‘Classic 120 Days of Sodom redubbed for Irish context’, September 22nd, 2019, Irish Examiner, https://www.irishexaminer.com/breakingnews/lifestyle/culture/classic-120-days-of-sodom-redubbed-for-irish-context-952326.html