'Laundry' by ANU Productions at Ulster Bank Dublin Theatre Festival. Photo: Owen Boss

'Laundry' by ANU Productions at Ulster Bank Dublin Theatre Festival. Photo: Owen Boss

To describe Louise Lowe’s new site responsive work as an immersive experience would not do justice to the profound relationship between bearing witness and emotional exchange that Laundry demands. Entering the Gloucester Street Magdalene Laundry in groups of three, the audience is immediately separated. Although we experience the same scenes in different order, Lowe is interested in exploring the individual experience: both the subjective experience of the individual audience member and the individual stories of the various Maggies – as the inmates were known – who we meet on our journey through the abandoned building. 

The scenes we witness are enacted in closed, cell-like spaces, and the stories themselves reflect harrowing breaches of personal and physical autonomy. The effect is often distressing but never gratuitously so. Laundry is not just an act of public disclosure but of social questioning, where we are asked to consider our own role in perpetuating systemic corruption, and by placing us in such close proximity to history, Lowe is inviting us to question our own complicity. Should you reach out to comfort the young woman who genuflects in front of you so closely that her head almost touches your knees?  Should you help the fragile young woman out of the bath, bind her breasts for her again when she invites you to? Should you stay to protect her when the supervising nun forces you out? Do you agree to help the ghostly girl who hides behind the mirror, a palimpsest upon your disturbed reflection, begging for intervention?

In this deliberately undefined theatrical situation, the audience is unsure of its role, is afraid to breach convention by breaking the dramatic frame, and yet within the confines of the dramatic illusion itself we are also made aware of how little power we wield: the performance will continue unfold no matter our intervention. For the most part, the authorities confining the women, abusing the women, remain invisible. It is thus our lack of action that appears to condemn the women to this life of slavery, just as it was an unspoken social collusion that enabled the Magdalene Laundries to remain open  and operational into the late twentieth century.

As a theatrical experience, Lowe’s choreography of the various elements of the performance is incredibly impressive. Scenes play on a loop seamlessly as the individual audience members move through them. The building itself provides much of the soundscape, although it is undoubtedly enhanced by Ivan Birthistle and Vincent Doherty’s sound design, which never underestimates the emotional power of a heavy slamming door. Choreographer Emma O’Kane creates a sort of dance from brutal physical encounters. Sarah Jane Shiels lighting design provides narrative momentum, luring us deeper into the building with its alternately flashing and dimming codes. Designer Owen Boss responds to the laundry’s environment in a subtle multi-sensory way that allows the building itself to tell its own story through smell, texture, temperature, as well as through its austere aesthetic.

The least successful part of Laundry , however, is its closing scenes, which bring us back to the present day via a dramatic device that is enacted in a nearby laundry. The stilted dialogue and laboured naturalism is an affront to the way in which image and emotional engagement allowed the rest of Laundry to say so much in near-silence: as one of the anonymous Maggie’s tells us, it was silence that defined life for the women. That said, the facts communicated during this contemporary exchange are sobering: the last women were admitted to the Gloucester Street Laundry in 1995, before the building was finally closed the following year.

Laundry is shocking and difficult to watch without being remotely sensationalist. It is probably one of the most important, provocative works about institutional abuse in Ireland, and the social complicity that enabled it to permeate our culture for so long.

Sara Keating writes about theatre for The Irish Times and The Sunday Business Post.


  • Review
  • Theatre

Laundry by ANU productions

29 Sept -15 Oct, 2011

Produced by ANU Productions
In Ulster Bank Dublin Theatre Festival

Director Louise Lowe

Creative Producer Hannah Mullan

Designer Owen Boss

Lighting Design Sarah Jane Shiels

Sound Design Ivan Birthistle and Vincent Doherty

Choreographer Emma O'Kane