REVIEWS: Sylvia’s Quest

On sunny days in Dublin, you’d wonder why anyone would want to be anywhere else – with bustling streets, the glittering river and happy faces enjoying the fine weather but one unhappy lady is not so entrawled with the wonderfully sunny Dublin.

Sylvia emerges from a street corner and makes friends immediately with me and my fellow travellers on Wonderland Productions’ latest project Sylvia’s Quest – a story which takes you through the streets of Dublin while Sylvia – a Bulgarian archaeology student recounts her stories of her time in Dublin, battling with her difficult boss and coping with her homesickness for her family back in Bulgaria.

The streets of Dublin have never seemed so lonely to me, and being Irish with a happy group of friends and family around me in Dublin it really put the city in a different light. Sylvia battles between her love for her family and her desire to pursue her own dreams in a quest to find her way home. The trouble with Sylvia is that she must first define what home is for her – a challenge that, I can imagine, faces many emigrants.

The story is well written and Elitsa Dimova gives a warm and comfortable performance as little Syliva. The production is very much audience participation which can strike the fear of god into many theatre lovers, but if you’re willing to step beyond the theatre seats and onto the streets then you’ll be rewarded with a cleverly crafted, engaging and touching production.

Dublin Culture ✮✮✮✮

If you’re in Temple Bar this July or August you might spot a pretty girl in yellow leading around a group of people wearing headphones. She’s Sylvia Sylvana, the protagonist of Sylvia’s Quest, a new show by Wonderland Productions. The play is set in contemporary Dublin and uses the city as its stage. As Sylvia (played by Elitsa Dimova) guides her new friends through the streets she tells them about herself and the country she came from – the experience of the “new Irish” is one of the production’s main themes. Sylvia is a Bulgarian archaeologist who works in Dublin as a cleaner and the concept of the show is that the headphones let the audience listen to the sounds and voices which normally only Sylvia can hear. As an archaeologist far from her native land many of Sylvia’s thoughts are of Thrace, the civilisation that existed in antiquity in what’s now Bulgaria. (You know the one, it’s where Spartacus came from.) The headphones also let us listen in on the phonecalls which provide much of the play’s dialogue.

Immersive theatre – plays involving audience interaction with the characters, props or location – has been a popular part of recent theatre festivals. It’s often quite provocative. Sylvia’s Quest uses a gentler, less confrontational form of immersion. I loved it, and think other immersive theatre productions should learn from it.

By its nature immersive theatre is more subjective than traditional theatre, and that is particularly true in this case given that Sylvia’s Quest uses the streets of Temple Bar as its set. The weather, curious glances (or comments) from perplexed onlookers, and Sylvia’s conversations with the audience members guarantee that no two performances will be identical. This variation means I can’t be certain you’ll have as much fun as I did, but despite that I’m going to give Sylvia’s Quest five stars. Its use of technology and contribution to immersive theatre are commendable – but most of all Sylvia’s Quest is a lot of fun.

The Herald Dubliner

Sylvia’s Quest weaves together mythology with the story of Sylvia, a Bulgarian cleaner living in Dublin. Drawing parallels with the labyrinths of classical legend and the streets of the city, Sylvia’s difficult situation as an immigrant is explored. Making use of radio technology, through earphones we can hear her voice as she tells her story. We can also hear the voices of her family, her employers, the gods and the monsters that seem to roam through her head. Memories which are haunting her are open to us, dark events from the past, those times when she was called “pigeon girl”.

The ambition of writer, director and producer Alice Coghlan’s piece is admirable in combining location with narrative…Bulgarian actress Elitsa Dimova deserves a medal for her performance as the titular character. Her charm keeps the piece going, her craft in weaving a character that is at once sweet but also dark and potentially dangerous is impressive. A torrential downpour that would have stopped play at Wimbledon only gave one scene an added frisson of emotion as Elitsa battled through the dialogue, soaked to the skin.

The appearance of a rainbow at another key moment in the performance demonstrated the magic of what can happen when you move outside a traditional performance space.

Irish Theatre Magazine

Wonderland’s latest offering continues in their tradition of ambitious and imaginative work. Sylvia’s Quest is the site-specific journey of Sylvia Sylvana, a young Bulgarian woman recently arrived in Ireland and working as a cleaner for the Mulhalls. Sylvia’s doubly redolent name, with its woodland and magical associations, is also linked to the name of her home place, and her memories are imbued with a vivid sense of its history. She had worked as an amateur archaeologist assisting her uncle, and her narrative reminds us of the past glories of this part of the world so little known and understood by Western Europeans. For this was Ancient Thrace, the home of the historical Orpheus who became an inherent part of Greek myth – a place of magnificent golden artefacts, intact labyrinths to rival those of Crete, and of Pagane, an oracle whose mountain-top site remains intact. But Sylvia lives in the contemporary world of mobile phones, street drugs and racial slurs. The precarious state of the publishing industry is used by her comfortably middle-class employer as an excuse to cheat Sylvia of her wages.

Through the labyrinth of Dublin’s Temple Bar Elitsa Dimova as Sylvia leads audience participants who follow dialogue by means of radio transmission as she speaks with her uncle and “Baba” (or grandmother) at home; an aggressive homeless woman whom she encountered early on in Dublin; a compassionate restaurant owner; and the various members of the Mulhall clan, living and dead. Sylvia also communes with Pagane and favours the colour yellow in every aspect of her life, as it is the choice of the Thracian gods (or so we are led to believe).

The symbology of the drama is, therefore, complex, and overburdened at times. Writer Alice Coghlan has an impressive history of inventive, site-specific shows, many of them adaptations of classics. She is also experienced in other arts and media including opera, television and children’s theatre. Sylvia’s Quest emerges from her personal experience of Bulgaria and, in an effort to explain the country to Irish audiences, she has engaged in a worthy and intriguing project which includes a programme chock-a-block with historic, mythic, and socio-cultural detail about Bulgaria, supplemented by interviews with several recent emigrants to Ireland… Dimova, a diminutive actor, delivers a graceful performance requiring a variety of skills, vocal and physical. She interacts with members of the audience – always a potential minefield for either party – with both charm and confidence. The audio performers sketch hauntingly vivid personalities, especially Anne Marie O’Donovan as Homeless Hazel. Sound designer Tommy Foster meets and surpasses the challenge of providing such subtle audio variation, continuity and clarity which is sustained through fluctuating outdoor conditions. Costuming by Maria Tapper, using bright yellow and red throughout, conveys a folkloric element, while jewellery design by Paula Boyle carries through the spiral motif of the labyrinth, and suggests a Celtic link.

It is worth noting that the logistics of site-specific performance are challenging. That challenge was being met by Wonderland having the author and two others from the production team accompany the audience and actor throughout the entire journey – but the risk to an actor or member of the audience, or the threat of a sabotaged performance on the streets of Dublin, is not negligible. On the other hand, here’s to the people of Dublin and the visitors to the city, who stopped, smiled, stood aside and showed interest and encouragement when exposed to an unlooked-for event which did, and should, show the city arts scene to advantage.

The Irish Times

She materialises from out of nowhere, a tiny, tripping figure in a yellow Mackintosh, and her voice slowly emerges from a cacophony of others. This is Sylvia, played by the elfin yet commanding Elitsa Dimova. A Bulgarian living in Dublin, Sylvia divides her time between archaeological studies and poorly-paid cleaning work, and divides herself between memories, mythic fantasies and intruding voices.

With a distinctly tangled identity, Sylvia makes an unreliable guide for Wonderland Productions’ new performance, which is part play, part audio tour. Sylvia’s speech comes to us through headphones, sometimes embedded in a chorus of other characters within Tommy Foster’s intricate sound design, and she leads us with a flighty pace through Temple Bar. Her quest is elemental and age-old – the search for home – but the way is unclear.

Nudged along by voices both real and imaginary (a “prophetess”, her Dublin employers, family calls from home) Sylvia leads us through a labyrinth, which writer/director Alice Coughlan turns into a psychological and physical maze. It’s a considered approach, but it’s easy to become disoriented by its turns, and finally confused.

Three layers of narrative are warped and woven together: a socially-conscious tale of an economic migrant in recessionary Ireland, a mistily suggested pattern of mental illness, and heavier allusions to Ancient Thrace and Greek mythology, particularly the story of Orpheus. At times, Coghlan hints at schizophrenic delusion, in which even the audience members (often addressed by name) could be Sylvia’s hallucinations.

Negotiating between realism and metaphor, Dimova can indicate an underworld of despair, but plays much of it as a lighter fantasy. Some elaborations are vivid with detail: the exploitative manoeuvres of Sylvia’s desperate employer, her easily shared rye bread and casual prejudices, or the worries of her distant grandmother. Others, though, such as an inconsequential character named Deadlaus or knotted yellow motifs, feel more like noise.

At such moments, the promenade form seems less essential; the places we visit rarely correspond with Sylvia’s journey or assert their own character. There’s much to consider in the accumulation of its material, the dauntless command of Dimova, and the deep immersion into Sylvia’s headspace.

The Sunday Times

Sylvia came to Ireland to save money. She wanted to buy her grandmother a yellow house in Bulgaria and complete her PhD. In Dublin she works as a cleaner and people refer to her as “Bulgaria”, the “Polish polisher” or worst, “Invisible”. In a bid to make friends, Sylvia takes a theatre loving audience on a tour of her Dublin fortified by the ghosts of the past and the present. Fortified by a positive attitude, Sylvia prances along the streets and passionately explains the mythical history of her homeland.

Dimova’s charm is central to the production, which has been written and directed by Wonderland’s Alice Coghlan. The audience wear headsets that provide voices of additional characters, and the tour is well-timed as it has to contend with the unpredictable foot traffic of Dublin City Centre. While the subject matter is about four years out of date, the portrayal of homesickness and isolation is remarkably arresting, not to mention the incidental highlighting of a dominant country’s ignorance. I went home to read more about Bulgaria.

Gathered with fellow participants by the Arnotts Shoppers, we were excitedly awaiting a tiny figure in yellow. Suddenly, we heard voices in our headphones. Then we saw Sylvia rushing towards us, chased by whispers, oracles, music and ghosts of her pasts…. And a new adventure began.

Set in the beautiful surroundings of Temple Bar, Sylvia’s Quest is a unique experience mixing theatre with interactive audio-walks. Led through alleys and streets, viewers get drawn into the labyrinth of Sylvia’s dreams, nightmares and hopes that seem to populate every corner of the Cultural District. The show removes the barrier between stage and people and make audience enter the character’s realm. The whole pallet of emotions floats through our hearts when watching her talk to relatives, dance with Mr Brooke Mulhall or fight for self-reliance. Her sunny coat represents our own light we carry to the unknown. Just like a torch, it brightens up the journey through the urban maze and helps us find the way out of the labyrinth.

Sylvia’s Quest is a brilliantly performed play. It will urge you to look again at the world you know through an immigrant’s eyes and face their fears and aspirations that some of us take for granted.

Leinster Leader

This week, you may see a young brunette, dressed in a bright yellow rain jacket and tomato red tights, prancing through the streets of Newbridge. You could come across her twirling a tea-cup on the Liffey bridge, polishing the window of the empty “Celebrations” shop on Main Street, looking longingly into O’Rourke’s bar or lighting candles and listening to rocks down by the Strand.

She will be followed by a flock of initially sheepish people, wearing radio headsets. These enable the audience to hear sounds, background music and the “other half” of conversations between the girl, Bulgarian actress Elitsa Dimova, and characters including her ailing grandmother back home and her selfish employer.

Sylvia’s Quest is a piece of street theatre by Wonderland Productions, written by Alice Coghlan, which has come to the Riverbank as part of Newbridge 200 Festival. First performed on the streets of Temple Bar, it has been seamlessly adapted to take in Newbridge’s lanes and roadways around Eyre Street, College Park and the Liffey.

Sylvia is an illegal immigrant to Ireland. A young archaeologist who dreams of landing a place on a historic dig, she works as a cleaner for the exploitative Yvette Mulhall and as a companion to the latter’s frail mother, who depends on her kindness and stories as her own family have failed her.

Sylvia’s Quest reveals the layers of the immigrant experience to Ireland of those from Eastern European countries. The heroine is a bright and educated girl who worked on historic excavations with her uncle back in Bulgaria. Yet in Ireland she works as a cleaner for a family who don’t pay – their thoughtlessness leaving her hungry and unable to afford to ring home.

She wants to find her place in the world, unsure of whether it is in Ireland or at home, or in some realm influenced by the myths and legends if the ancient Thracians of the Bulgarian region and the journey of Orpheus.

The crowd is “led in” to Sylvia’s story – initially a little bemused by both the jumbling of myth and Sylvia’s reality. There is also the initial self-consciousness of walking the streets of the town wearing headphones and a radio pack, following a girl who seems to be talking and dancing to herself as much as her audience most of the time.

It is a tribute to Dimova’s skill as an actress that she draws in the mobile audience – and a few curious passers-by – so by the time her journey comes to a close they are spellbound enough to hold hands with other strangers in a circle and help perform a rite to send her on her way.

For all its simplicity, this is a highly-skilled production, seamlessly marrying Dimova’s conversations with the sounds of her life and her country’s myths, heard via headphones.

The reactions of passers-by were curious. As the production debuted under sunny skies last Saturday, some people looked on curiously. Yet others didn’t seem to notice the theatre production taking place on Newbridge’s streets, ploughing through the “stage” pushing buggies or with ears clamped to mobile phones.

Just goes to show that there are secret stories happening all around, if you just look up.

The Public Reviews

Wonderland’s production, Sylvia’s Quest, takes you outside the theatre, using the Dundrum Shopping Centre, inside and out, as the set for their tale of a Bulgarian woman living in Ireland.

What transpires in this piece of street theatre, is the unfolding of the life and character of Sylvia, told through her own experiences, and the voices of people she encounters, as well as those she has left at home. At times uplifting, at times dark, it is a production that brings you face to face, literally, with a displaced woman, lost in an unfamiliar world that is harsh towards her.

Sylvia, played with charm and feeling by Elitsa Dimova, is the only actress we see, and she engages with the audience extremely well. The dancing sequence is really wonderfully portrayed, as are her facial expressions, which we get to see clearly, being so close. The other actors, played by Damien Devaney and Anne Marie O’Donovan, are voices, which Dimova conjures up by acting to them.

Before the performance, we are given headsets and receivers, through which the vocal action takes place, in a way removing the real world sounds and bringing us into this new world. Sylvia herself appears through the real crowd of the shopping centre, people going about their everyday business; some noticing us and some not, which, in some ways, is really the point of the piece. It feels like theatre, but has that reality of movies, and you can pick your own angle (although you are guided to the best vantage points if necessary). Obviously, a piece like this has no intermission, but being on the move makes one unnecessary. Also, for the outside, umbrellas are provided in the case of rain.

It is an experience that wraps all around you, and for that reason is well worth seeing. In fact, the idea has many possibilities for many tales in many locations. It is experimental, and it is very different. It takes familiar surroundings and changes them in some way, and that is unique as well. It will be interesting to see what this company and writer do next, but one thing is for sure, they are thinking outside the box.

Michael Moffat, Mail on Sunday on Sylvia’s Quest and Dubliners

I think of them as the Lone Rangers of the theatre world – a small number of individuals, determined to spread the range and accessibility of theatre in unconventional settings despite the poorly-paid effort that goes into it.

Two years after Abbey actor Karl Sheils had to close his TheatreUpstairs. He’s all set to open up again, on July 4, round the corner from the Abbey, over Lanigan’s pub on Eden Quay, with a new play by Jimmy Murphy. “We’re situated” says Karl, “between The Samaritans and The Comedy Lounge, so if you’re depressed or get fed up laughing, you can come in to us.” The new venue is more attractive, with a Green Room gallery for art exhibitions.

A little further down the Liffey, starting near the Ha’penny Bridge, the tirelessly inventive site-specific specialist Alice Coghlan and her Wonderland Company, will soon be launching her latest venture, Sylvia’s Quest, using highly innovative audience radio technology. Meanwhile, her walk-round production using dramatised recordings of Joyce’s Dubliners is still going strong.

And over by the seafront in Clontarf, a few miles past Fairview, Laura Dowdall has been successfully presenting shows during the past year in her newly set-up Viking Theatre, above Connolly’s pub, The Sheds. The different approach to publicity reflects the nature of the two small theatres. “I’ve just sent notification out to 2241 people by pressing a button” says Karl, “and I’m already looking at two hundred and something-odd replies.” The Viking had no previous fan base, so Laura Dowdall and her fellow-enthusiast, Andy Murray, had to rely on older methods. “We got 10,000 fliers printed with our programme on it. Getting the programme together was a bit of a wing and a prayer, and we just walked round Clontarf and environs and put them in all the doors.”

Laura says they’re paying the bills at present, which fortunately are not great, and the pub is happy with the business they’re bringing in. “We didn’t have much at the beginning, and we borrowed a lot of things that are still on loan. The New Theatre has given us some of their old seats. People have been great at things like that.” There’s an excellent website and video, (viking theatre@the sheds) but Laura tells me they’ve improved the layout a lot since it was made. Karl had no Arts handouts either. “We ran a fundraiser recently with 14 different acts. The money will go into the productions, and we got some donations.” Depending on the show, they can seat an audience of 50-70. It’s roughly the same at the Viking.

During the past five years, the young director Alice Coghlan’s Wonderland group have done a remarkable number of high quality shoe-string productions. She has used Georgian houses and restaurants to present performances of her translations of French and Italian comedy, Italian opera and dramatisations of Dorian Gray and Gulliver’s Travels. In her upcoming show Sylvia’s Quest, the character Sylvia will speak to and interact with her audience of 18 using a radio microphone. The audience gets two signals – Sylvia’s voice and a fully recorded radio play with interactions.

So what do these small productions and places have to offer? For Karl it’s simple: “Opportunity. For new writers, new actors, new directors.” And for the audience? “They’ll see work they’d possibly never see. You could see the next Jimmy Murphy or the next Tom Murphy.”

Laura Dowdall after years of producing had had enough of forking out “seven or eight grand a week” to hire some theatre in town. And the audience? “They aren’t the typical audience that go into town with their arms folded and say ‘go on, please me’. We’ve had people in their 40s and 50s come to us saying they’d never been to a play before. And we’ve done a few late afternoons for the active retired people, who don’t like to come out at night-time.”

Alice Coghlan says Wonderland was actually on the point of near bankruptcy before they got the great news about a grant, their first, from The Arts Council and The City Council, for Sylvia. And why does she put herself through all the hassle? “It’s just that you have ideas, and you dream so much of making these ideas reality, that anything is worth making it happen.”


Back to Sylvia’s Quest Production Details         View More Wonderland Reviews

Bookmark the permalink.