The long-suppressed story of Rosemary Kennedy told through an extraordinary mix of music, performance and video

By: Jan. 18, 2023
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Review: LEAST LIKE THE OTHER, SEARCHING FOR ROSEMARY KENNEDY, Royal Opera House, Linbury Theatre Review: LEAST LIKE THE OTHER, SEARCHING FOR ROSEMARY KENNEDY, Royal Opera House, Linbury Theatre The mythos of the Kennedy clan persists because it embraces so many of the stories that man has told itself since classical times. There's Jack and Bobby soaring and falling, the monstrous father, Joe, pulling the strings and, lurking in the shadows, the sister, locked away as if in a tower, out of sight and, so Joe and plenty others hoped, out of mind.

Thankfully, not - at least not any more. Rosemary Kennedy's story - or, to be more accurate, parts of her long life's story - is told in this Irish National Opera production, a work that isn't really an opera, nor a play but something inbetween, a melding of narrative forms that gives a voice to a woman (literally) denied it. In placing Rosemary at the centre of her own narrative, it condemns a series of men who, in the most generous of interpretations, can be described as misguided, but perhaps the more straightforward word 'evil' will suffice, notwithstanding the USA's long and continuing fascination with dangerous quackery.

On a set that suggests the impersonal bureaucracy of medical interventions, a woman sings, screams, shouts in the agony of childbirth, as a voiceover reads the account of Rosemary's birth, a distressing story of men damaging her before she had even drawn her first breath.

It also introduces the near overwhelming sensory environment in which we are plunged for 70 minutes. Brian Irvine's music clashes and clangs, snippets of melody poking through at times but with just two interludes of calm that points to the joy Rosemary could have found in a more empathetic world. We also see, projected, the sources from which words have been taken, including Rosemary's mother, Rose Kennedy's, autobiography, reports, letters, cruel tests and textbooks, vicious speeches. Director, Netia Jones, projects eerie photographs and videos of a family pressed and punished to be perfect, but with one of the nine children least like the others.

Stephanie Dufresne and Ronan Leahy play the women and men who circle Rosemary, often reading from hand-held papers to underline the documentary verisimilitude of what we hear. That device, at least in part, gives licence to speak what is now unspeakable - words that are taboo, ideas discredited, all manner of discrimination given the veneer of scientific validation. It is important that such difficult material is heard since much of this appalling litany of harm continued well into living memory. Such witness is painful but necessary.

Irish soprano, Amy Ní Fhearraigh, is the only singer on stage, often, though not always, playing Rosemary. Her voice beautiful, pained, accusing. It's an extraordinary performance as a singer and even more so as an actor, bringing the humanity to Rosemary even as it is systematically stripped away. Only when she swims, alone and untethered to a world full of closing doors and the straight lines that delineate her every step, can we hear the operatic elements fully retreat from harshness and embrace harmony - we glimpse, as did Rosemary, the peace she could have had.

Everyone will be touched by some element of Rosemary's life - her letters to her father got to me. In that plain text, (like Enid Blyton's tales for children, Rosemary did not use adjectives or adverbs, just short sentences) we see an ordinary girl exploring the tiny space afforded by her semi-incarcerated life. The eagerness to please her exacting father is all but tangible, heartbreakingly so - and it was met by Joe delivering his daughter into the hands of a butcher for the lobotomy that robbed her of so much at the age of just 23.

It is sobering to reflect that the men who visited such pain on women like Rosemary (and the lobotomy craze went well beyond victims deemed to be slow learners into groups of people who, as the work's title suggests, were simply least like the other and therefore a threat) are still with us today. Not the same individuals of course, but those who rejoice in the same contempt for women who won't fit in, who won't do as they're told, who won't shape up or ship out. It is those attitudes that drive the everyday sexism that chips away the space available to women. It drives an advertising industry that relentlessly promotes neuroses over diet, looks, self-esteem and then sells the latest cure for a price. It is what drove the murderous misogynistic culture in the Metropolitan Police, more news of which emerged on the very day that I saw this production.

It's one reason why Rosemary Kennedy's life deserves to be remembered as much as her exalted brothers - and why it is just as important.

Least Like The Other, Searching For Rosemary Kennedy is at the Royal Opera House, Linbury Theatre until 19 January

Photo Credit: Irish National Opera

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