The first time I went to see THISISPOPBABY’s show Riot, the headliner of 2016’s Dublin Fringe Festival, I went along to support my friend Ronan, who was part of the cast. Ronan is a professional circus artist, a career he came to via a roundabout route involving playing senior GAA for Roscommon and later being a secondary school engineering teacher. He was on a career break from teaching when I first met him, trying to make his life as a circus performer work. He has since set up a personal training business, left teaching, and now trains six hours a day. As part of Dublin’s aerial arts community, I went along with circus friends to see his show. I didn’t expect to be as utterly blown away by it as I was, so when it was announced in February 2017 that the show would do another run in Dublin this Summer, I bought tickets right away.
In the months following the show’s run in the 2016 Fringe Festival, I watched Ronan become a minor celebrity, which is a strange thing to watch happen to a friend. He appeared on the Late Late Show and was interviewed for the Irish Times, and when I ran into him at the March for Choice and said hello and hugged, the people I was with looked at me in amazement: “Is he your friend?”
Dublin was close the day it was finally time to see the show again – it’s fitting on the day of seeing a show very specific to Ireland to use a very Irish description for the heavy, warm, sticky-but-not-sunny weather we were experiencing. I sat on the terrace outside Sova Vegan Butcher with a friend, willing the barely-existent breeze to dry the sweat collecting uncomfortably on my bare skin. I was facing out toward the street while Fi, my friend, was facing the restaurant’s window. A tanned man with a toned torso ran topless around the corner across the road, ponytail scooped up on top of his head and black leggings clinging to his buttocks. He looked Spanish or Italian, or of some other Mediterranean origin, with his sallow skin, popping abs, chiseled jaw and dark hair. I leaned slightly to my left to see past Fi and observe as he ran away along the street, while she watched his reflection in the restaurant’s window. Sweat shone on his back as he disappeared. We laughed, making vague comments about the scenery in Dublin 8 having improved over the years. Moments later, he was back, having done a lap of the block, coming past the same corner again. I leaned to my left to watch again, and this time Fi turned round, not bothering to conceal her staring. The man noticed us looking, and he stared back for a few seconds as he ran, cracked a brief smile before breaking eye contact and running on. The third time he rounded the corner, he ran out into the empty road, eight or ten feet closer to us, as if to say “Here, have a better look”.
After that, he was gone, whether back to his home or to some other street corner where equally leery women would similarly objectify him, we knew not. As we ate, we observed the similarity between us and the men who routinely stare at uncomfortable women every day on streets, and the differences between objectifying a man who obviously enjoyed the attention and objectifying a woman who is worn out from a lifetime of systematic oppression and sexualisation, concluding that the historic control of women’s bodies as objects for male pleasure rendered the two acts completely unalike.
We walked to Vicar Street after our meal and had a drink in the bar with another friend and his date before taking our seats in the theatre and waiting for the show to start. The stage had been extended out into the crowd to create a round platform for performers to play to an audience on all sides, and the backdrop was made up of many reflective photography umbrellas, projecting pink light out at the crowd.
Riot is truly made up of the crème de la crème of Irish performers. MC’d by Panti Bliss, Ireland’s beloved drag queen and “accidental” LGBT rights activist, it also offers performances from the amazing Lords Of Strut – a hilarious street performance duo who recently got to the semi final of Britain’s Got Talent – Ronan Brady, who is now Ireland’s most famous circus performer, alternative dance duo Up & Over It, singer and actor Megan Riordan from the musical Once, and spoken word artist Emmet Kirwan, who collaborated with filmmaker Dave Tynan to make a video of his poem Heartbreak about poverty and how it affects women disproportionately, which subsequently went viral and won an IFTA. The show is immensely political, commenting on classism, poverty, gender inequality, our ineffective conservative government, Ireland’s imprisonment of asylum seekers in gulags, and the need to separate church and state. This story of equality, fairness and liberation is told through the mediums of music, glitter, lights, drag, dance, acrobatics, comedy, blasphemy and poetry.
Early in the show, Emmet Kirwan comments that he understands the privileges that come with being white, western and male – “Cause I’m not a fuckin’ dope.” At the beginning of their first act, Lords Of Strut roar “Hello, people with disposable income”, reminding us that we’re in a privileged position to be able to see the show in the first place. Panti Bliss jokes about blocking our gay-but-conservative political leader Leo Varadkar on gay hookup app Grindr and reminds the audience that we should all aspire to be whatever we want to be in her monologue “You are Farrah Fucking Fawcett”, and Emmet Kirwan gives the need to repeal the 8th amendment the mention it deserves in such a show.
Highlights include acts by Kirwan, Ronan and Lords of Strut. Having watched the video of Heartbreak at least 25 times online, I can almost recite every word of it, but nothing beats watching Kirwan perform it live, especially at its climactic conclusion when he roars “Help to create an Ireland that will stand in awe of all mná!” Lords Of Strut’s Famous Séamus takes to the stage dressed as Jesus ready for the cross: naked except for a clingfilm loincloth and a clingfilm crown of thorns, while his brother Seántastic, dressed in a clingfilm mankini, hands out swimming pool noodles to audience members who then come up on stage and whip the naked Jesus with them in a hilarious display of blasphemy, giving two fingers up to the Catholic church that refuses loosen its iron grip on Irish society and laws.
In my favourite moment from the whole show, Ronan enters the stage in his Roscommon GAA gear, a throwback to his days of playing Gaelic football for his county, his face painted with a mischievous grin. He then proceeds to eat a packet of Tayto crisps while stretching suggestively and winking at the audience, swinging on his aerial straps and emptying the last of the crisps over the ringside rows. What follows is a hysterically funny GAA striptease, where Ronan turns on its head the usual casting of female bodies as objects of visual pleasure, by becoming a sex object himself. In his Irish Times interview, where a fellow former GAA player described him as “a fine figure of a man”, he talks about suddenly understanding how this experience makes women feel, and his sense that “people feel like they own a bit of you… this is the shit that females have to put up with!” I thought back to the man running laps of the block in Dublin 8, and wondered whether he felt this too, or whether his obvious enjoyment of the attention overrode that.
For all its gender-bending and queerness, the one place that Riot falls down is in representation of anyone who isn’t white and male. The four most celebrated acts in the show – Ronan, Emmet Kirwan, Panti and Lords Of Strut – are all white men, although Panti is actually a drag queen. The women in the show take lesser parts in it, and there are no people of colour. Even Megan Riordan’s solo act seems like an afterthought that, while excellent, the show would be just as enjoyable without. Emmet’s comment about understanding the privileges conferred by being white, male and western seems to pre-empt this, and he does mention the importance of providing shelter to refugees, while Ronan and Panti do great work in turning gender norms upside down, but a show so concerned with inclusivity could still do better in terms of representation of women and non-white people. This occurred to me while screaming, cheering and clapping along, and the next day Fi sent me a long text expressing exactly what I thought about it.
Still, a lot is achieved in a short 90 minutes in terms of addressing these things. Riot runs until the end of this week, and I suspect I may find myself back in the audience one more time.