JUNK ENSEMBLE
★★★★ The Arts Review

Dolores at Dublin Dance Festival 2018

Chris O’Rourke

10 May 2018

‘Oh, my Lolita, I have only words to play with.’ 

 Such may be the case for Nabokov’s protagonist, Humbert Humbert, in his controversial novel Lolita, but this most certainly is not the case when it comes to Junk Ensemble’s haunting and politically charged reimagining of Lolita, “Dolores.” Words, music, dance, baton twirling, Junk Ensemble bring everything to the table in this towering interrogation of Nabokov’s 1955 novel. If much is lost, or discarded, in Junk Ensembles provocative repositioning of Nabokov’s problematic teen, a great deal is found as a result. Including insight, compassion, and a world of fresh questions as “Dolores” scratches away at Lolita's poetic veneer to reveal a horror and trauma that’s been varnished over,repositioning Dolores Haze as a victim of abuse rather than as a compliant and seductive fantasy for older men.

 While the end result is most certainly collaborative, the initial impulse for this extraordinary piece of dance theatre arose when Jessica and Megan Kennedy felt a need to redress, or reposition, Lolita for the twenty-first century. In doing so they first set about reclaiming her name, Dolores Haze, then set about giving her voice and agency. With Dolores now embracing a multitude of aspects, performers Julie Koenig, Deirdre Griffin, and Amanda Coogan respectively, each represent one of those aspects; the inner Dolores, the outer Dolores, and the woman she might later have become. Through text, movement, and song, each presents an alternative viewing of the novel’s events, as well as offering alternative futures, with the role of looking as a form of complicity being questioned throughout.

 Reminiscent, in many respects, of ANU’s These Rooms and The Sin Eaters, “Dolores” sees designer Valerie Reid crafting a promenade experience informed by a multitude of spaces which a split audience, following either a black or white ribbon, are guided through, suggesting a second visit could reveal further riches. If Reid works with a stripped back canvas, she ensures each detail counts. Traversing the various spaces, visual hints reminiscent of 1950s movies are infused with a faded, jaded elegance, like the dusty remains of a time long past, juxtaposed with images of glaring clarity, the whole often suggestive of David Lynch’s Blue Velvet. Like entering rooms in a cheap motel, each space harbouring its own dirty little secret, the audience enter, voyeuristically, to watch a young girl lying on her bed as the inner Dolores twists as if possessed, her shabby bedroom replete with the paraphernalia of puberty: magazines on love, posters of boys, her dolls house an echo from her fading childhood. Elsewhere, an outer Dolores is propelled on the ground, revolving in alternate, snapping circles beneath the glare of a car’s lights, to be manipulated like a rag doll by a man several times her age, while behind her the road rolls on endlessly. Later, an older Dolores gargles and spews out poison, ingested as a young girl when she was hooked by the mouth and forced to dress and behave in accordance with Humbert’s aggressive fantasies, both her and her world upended, like an upended room, or an upended piano. 

 From a young girl's bedroom, through to a dazzling display of baton twirling, right down to Sarah Foley's excellent costume designs which sees Deirdre Griffin’s outer Dolores resembling a cross between Tammy and Gidget, hints of 1950s Americana are peppered throughout. Against which Foley’s blue-and-white striped dresses, like uniforms in a concentration camp, set a striking contrast. Throughout, Sarah Jane Shiels’ evocative lighting design sees pulsating glares marry shadows and semi-dark as secrets are drawn slowly out into the half-light. Always, Denis Clohessy’s haunting, almost cinematic composition, played live by Danny Forde and Conor Shiel, beautfully underscores events, setting a dark and deliberating tone throughout, against which words often struggle to be heard. 

 Movement sequences, primarily solos and duets, with the occasional trio, choreographed by Megan and Jessica Kennedy, challenge Nabokov’s verbal prowess with a more powerful vocabulary of the body. Images of fighting figure frequently, from shadowboxing to wrestling, with movements often embracing a whipping, flailing energy, like a body straining for release, or a soul possessed. At other times a ponderous weightiness dominates as bodies articulate slowly. In both instances, movements give voice to the various incarnations of Dolores as she withdraws, wrestles, recoils, or relents, taking care to her various selves, often carrying, or being carried away by, other versions of herself or Humbert. Yet often an expressive silence dominates, informed by resistance and pain, the various aspect of Dolores communicating with each other through a language of subtle facial expressions and tentative smiles, speaking beyond words and silence. 

 While the character of Dolores opens onto a multitude of selves, Humbert Humbert, along with Quilty, are compressed into one, which can often make both feel like little more than pantomime villains. Thankfully the one they’re both embodied in is Mikel Murfi, whose performance is simply devastating. If Nabokov seems to be suggesting different degrees of abuse, “Dolores” is having none of it. Murfi’s Quilty may be an outright monster, but his Humbert is just another violent, heavy breather, slaking his lust on the innocent. There may be poetry in Murfi’s performance, but Humbert is never allowed to hide behind it as Murfi takes us to the dark side in a truly astonishing display. Equally astonishing is the powerful Amanda Coogan as the elder Dolores, taking tender care to her traumatised selves and revenge on her abuser. Coogan seems to channel both the inner and outer Dolores, weaving the trauma embodied by an impressive Koenig with the quiet, pained fury seething behind a riveting Griffin’s eyes. Together, all three merge into a wonderful, cohesive whole that is Dolores Haze.

 Yet if Dolores is liberated from pandering to male sexual fantasies, “Dolores” also risks presenting as a feminist revenge fantasy at times. An extraordinary sequence with Coogan and Murfi, which opens with beautiful delicacy and ambiguity as a conflicted and angry Coogan negotiates the past and present, soon degenerates into Murfi, looking like an obedient child or a stroke victim, being slammed repeatedly against the wall, or swung around like a rag doll. Here stereotypes are less challenged so much as replaced, replacing Lolita as nymphet with Humbert the monster. One whose sexual abuse is replaced with a different form of abuse. Abuse exercised against the perpetrator who, once demonised, can be treated accordingly. A surprisingly simplistic position which ignores that abusers are most often victims of abuse themselves.

 If it’s difficult understanding “Dolores” independent of the novel that informs it, it’s equally difficult to perceive “Dolores” independent of the politics that surround it. Such was the power of Nabokov’s Lolita, the name has now become part of the cultural lexicon, often used to describe young, visually sexualised, female teenagers and pre-teens. Yet reclaiming and re-writing Lolita opens more than one can of worms, including the allegation of reader complicity.

By reading Lolita, and forgiving the abuse for the sake of the poetry, we become complicit in the abuse. And essentially become abusers,” says Jessica Kennedy in a recent article. 

This raises several issues, including the possibility of the artist as censor. Like empathetic correctness, sensitivity readers, trigger warnings, and students who once fought to have banned texts included on their college curriculum now looking to have those same texts removed, the question here isn’t what are the acceptable ways to engage with what piece of art, but who gets to decide? Novels like Alissa Nutting’s extraordinary, best selling, 2013 debut Tampa, which follows an unrepentant, female, middle school teacher who seduces fourteen year old boys, highlights that engaging with the problematic subject of the abuse of minors, no matter how poetic, is not the sole prerogative of the male. Granted Tampa makes no attempt to disguise its overt pornographic delight beneath the veneer of poetry, despite some very fine writing, yet, like Lolita, it still has much to say on a broad range of issues. Do we ignore it? Ignore them both? Are we complicit in abuse if we don’t? Who gets to decide?

 Even if you don’t accept Nabokov’s original frame as being flawed, and many do not,“Dolores” still offers another frame with which to perceive Lolita, one that puts the young victim at the heart of the tale front and centre. Granted there are other frames, but if “Dolores” sometimes looses sight of this, it finds an astonishing, brave, frightened young woman whose resilience in the face of unimaginable horror gives hope to all. You might not entirely agree with all of its politics, but “Dolores” raises many important questions. Yet politics aside, there is simply no resisting “Dolores’” power. Provocative and unapologetically brilliant, “Dolores” offers a uniquely thrilling experience. One worth several revisits to make sure you don’t miss a thing.