Vanessa O’Neill Shines in ‘In Search of Owen Roe’

  • La Mama Theatre, 11th  –  28th May 2016

Sometimes, the person who accompanies you to see a show can give you a different perspective on the show, that may balance your own.

I went to see In Search of Owen Roe at La Mama, on a night where students from Ballarat were also present to watch a play that’s on the 2016 VCE Drama Playlist. There was a post-show Q & A session with the writer and performer Vanessa O’Neill, which was very insightful as she not just skilfully answered questions, but shared some very interesting and essential aspects of her journey making this work. The session felt like an extension of the work, and added to the aura of the performer rather than being brought back to reality, which was quite special.

The work itself was a solo act by O’Neill, directed by Glynis Angell, where she traces her Irish roots back to her great grandfather Owen Roe O’Neill, and hence the title. In a solo act, a lot depends on how the story is told, and the skill of the performer to keep the audience engaged through their words and action. Some performers would perhaps use a lot of props and enlist the help of a set to make it easier, but not O’Neill. There was no set, but O’Neill used the La Mama stage very effectively along with about 11 props to tell her story.

She successfully took us on a journey through different eras, creating different characters in different accents – the freedom fighter grandfather, the gold miner grandfather, the grandmother who stayed home, the father who had Alzheimer’s Disease, the carefree son and his relationship with his grandfather was all quite special to witness. The father especially was quite a strong character in the story and gave us some very touching moments. O’Neill seamlessly went in and out of prop and costume changes to create clear and specific images that reflected a certain time, and moved on to the next. Her embodiment of characters was no less than a masterclass in character acting.

The work being so close to the performer’s heart in this case enriches the writing. It is very simply one person’s search for her ancestor’s story, her roots. As she puts it in the program, “This is a play that began with nothing. A bare plot of earth and a search for the great grandfather buried beneath. (As she told us in the Q&A, she came across his tomb quite by accident.) The stories woven throughout the piece have taken on a life of their own, leading me into unexpected territory, with surprising echoes across different characters and periods of time.” We get a sense of the journey and feel empathy and pain for the characters, that open themselves to us through O’Neill, and it is all brought together beautifully in this 60 min piece with the writing, sound design by Darius Kedros and lighting design by Richard Vabre.

The work had been performed at La Mama as an exploration in 2013 and a full sold out season in 2015, and returned once again for this season. O’Neill had conceptualised and created the work for the very space which worked very well.

So for my friend, who joined me this was the very first time he had seen a professional theatre show. While I felt that the actor took a little while connecting with us, he was mesmerised by her from beginning till end, and made the film buff a convert to live theatre. For a solo performer to have such a big impact on a non theatre goer, deserves nothing less than hats off.

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