Notch, VAULT Festival

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by Dora Bodrogi

CW: war, migration, mental health, homelessness

How do you cope when the promise of the West turns out to be a city in the midst of a housing crisis, and you’re only one pay check away from homelessness? A.A. (Danaja Wass) doesn’t really know.

But she is a girl pining. She is the Waitrose assistant with an accent. She’s homeless. She’s a bundle of blankets on the street, she has chips on her face and she knows it, she is the one asking for change on the train. Her luxury is a mixed, hostel dorm with only six beds where she sleeps with a dildo-shaped taser for safety. She’s a Croat, she’s a Dubliner. She’s an immigrant, she’s foreign. She wants you to know she is here. Through her story, the play explores themes of losing, finding, and losing again one’s home, love and longing, mental health, collective trauma, and otherness.

In a desperate need for friendship and a way to cope with mental strain resulting from a life uprooted, A.A. develops a crush – more than that, it’s downright obsession with a girl called Mags (Evelyn Lockley), whom we see on a TV projection. She is amongst grainy imagery of RTÉ, a young Pavarotti, and the Croatian War of Independence. A.A.’s trauma is an inherited one: “I don’t remember the war, other people remember it for me, and I wish they wouldn’t, I just want to stop talking about it, I want to stop talking about it,” she declares. But trauma, whether collective or individual, is sticky, elusive, and it has a way of showing itself in unexpected ways – until you’re found in a cubicle in that still most democratic and egalitarian space that is McDonald’s.

Of all immigrants in all places, A.A.’s story in Dublin offers the opportunity to further realise differences and parallels between the two cultures. She is not a refugee, not technically, she left by choice for that still-worshipped idea of a Western Europe where you can make a better life for yourself, i.e work menial jobs, happy to be earning at all. It just didn’t exactly turn out that way – or is it that this promising West, modelled on the American Dream, never really existed?

Besides, an everyday conversation can other a newly arrived foreigner. For example, “Want to go grab a can?” a Waitrose colleague asks her in one scene, to which she replies, “From which aisle?”. When it becomes clear that this is an offer of a drink, she points out that it’s a Wednesday afternoon. “It’s sunny,” the colleague reasons simply – cue a rather self-deprecating wave of laughter among all the audience, from whichever side of this scene they can relate to more. Out of difference comes a moment shared. Beyond this, national trauma is also ingrained in both Irish and Croatian history. Perhaps this could be explored more in the story, as it is not every day that such a unique perspective is heard, let alone in such a genuine, moving, and candid way as in Notch.

Writer and actor Danaja Wass describes the play as a maze. Together with director Madelaine Moore, they have found a way to create structure and to make sense of trauma, an inherently nonsensical experience, especially when it’s caused not by one tangible event, but death by a thousand cuts. In the context of the current political climate, this story could not be more relevant. It needs to be told. Extra points for bringing to light a narrative of a queer immigrant womxn from Eastern Europe and exposing all the intersectional issues such a person might face, such as homelessness and love still tainted by shame.

The movement direction (Lucy Bishop) deserves a special mention, as it elevates the action to truly artistic levels. Together with one of the best scripts at the festival ever, cuts deeply and unforgivably. The sound design is smart, and the degree of separation between A.A. and Mags through the grainy, flat-screen TV is expressive in itself rather than gimmicky.

Another feat of the play is that it’s fresh, young, and funny but it doesn’t try to be for the sake of attention or being compared to Fleabag as soon as dialogue ix dotted with cheeky, to-the-camera narration. It tastes real. It brings that Balkanic/Eastern European, bittersweet sense of humour of sharp, snarky wit and laughter through tears.

Wass’s emotional spectrum and her command of the audience are remarkable. Invisible no more, she compels and demands you listen to her now. As A.A., she says she wishes she had a voice – in this play, she doesn’t only have one, but she uses it brilliantly. Notch is a true achievement of writing, poetry, and theatre.

Notch runs through 23 February.

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