Grounds of Royal Hospital Kilmainham transformed for ‘Great Hunger’

The Dublin Theatre Festival (DTF) has been running in a sharply cut-back and adapted version because of Covid-19 restrictions.  

The DTF box office operates online-only and social distancing is taking place in all locations.  

Dublin 8’s Royal Hospital Kilmainham has been the host of one of the most innovative productions: an outdoor dramatisation of Patrick Kavanagh’s poem The Great Hunger, an Abbey Theatre production in partnership with the Irish Museum of Modern Art (IMMA).  

Award winning Irish directors Conall Morrison and Caitríona McLaughlin bring to life The Great Hunger, a poem about Patrick McGuire who is starving intellectually and emotionally for a sense of belonging in Ireland.  

With heavy reference to the Famine, it illustrates an Ireland that is impoverished culturally. Now, in a global pandemic, Kavanagh’s words could not be more relevant. 

Photo Ros Kavanagh

The performances run until Saturday, 10th October and is the Abbey Theatre’s first physical production since the beginning of March. It is an open-air show with a cast of 26 actors and 10 musicians taking audience members through the grounds of the Royal Hospital Kilmainham around a 1.7km route.  

The 14 different stanzas of the poem are enacted in 14 different locations in the grounds of IMMA. A light show will allow audience members to immerse themselves in the majestic world of Kavanagh’s work.  

There are four different performances each night with staggered start times. The running time is 90 minutes inclusive of 30 walking minutes. Good footwear and a rain jacket are recommended.  

Photo Ros Kavanagh

“The Abbey Theatre has had to rethink the way we present work over the last few months,” Róisín McGann of the Abbey Theatre tells The Liberty.  “We are working on three strands of programming – socially distanced live theatre in our building, live outdoor performance and digital theatre.”  

As it can be hard to remain optimistic through these trying times, the directors of the Abbey saw The Great Hunger as a fitting choice this year.  

“They felt the isolation of the poem’s protagonist and its depiction of life and nature would speak to the people of Ireland at this time and the grounds of IMMA would work perfectly for a promenade production,” explains McGann. 

The Abbey launched its “extraordinary programme for an extraordinary year” in the summer to ensure that theatre will survive through the pandemic. It was with this programme that ‘The Great Hunger’ was planned outdoors.  

One of the main instabilities that came with Covid-19 was the fragility of jobs in the arts sector.  

“The Abbey’s top priority since March was to find ways to employ as many artists as possible. The extraordinary programme will employ somewhere in the region of 400 freelance theatre practitioners,” notes McGann.  

“The Abbey’s core function of connecting artists and audiences will not change, theatre will prevail,” she adds.