Last Updated on January 16, 2023
The Irish National Opera provides unsettling insight into the Kennedy family
After last year’s excellent Bajazet production, the Irish National Opera is back at the Linbury Theater with contemporary opera this time. Least Like the Other tells the story of Rosemary Kennedy, a chilling insight into America’s First Family and their quest for perfection.
Rosemary Kennedy was the third child of Rose and Joseph Kennedy, born during the Spanish Flu outbreak. Doctors who were supposed to deliver Rose’s baby were delayed and nurses prevented the birth from happening without her by pushing the baby back into the birth canal. It is believed that this resulted in a lack of oxygen and was at the root of Rosemary’s mental health problems.
With one singer, two actors, a narrator and an orchestra offstage, the audience is transported into Rosemary’s world. The production relies heavily on cinematography, projected onto the walls of a white room staging entire one-act operas. This is a harrowing tale of a discredited medical procedure that became popular in the US during the 1930’s and 40’s. Rosemary herself was treated by Walter Freeman, a neurologist, and James Watts, a neurosurgeon who helped popularize the procedure. At that time there were few drugs for the treatment of mental disorders and what now seems barbaric was a popular treatment for those who had no other choice.
In the case of Rosemary Kennedy, we’re not sure if it was really necessary. His father, Joseph P Kennedy Sr. portrayed as an unlikable patriarch who demands perfection from his children and wife, while enjoying a more hedonistic lifestyle. The nine children he had included President John F. Kennedy and Senator Robert. F Kennedy and Ted Kennedy, Jean Kennedy Smith (US ambassador to Ireland) and Eunice Kennedy Shriver founded the Special Olympics.
Amy Ní Fhearraigh who plays Rose and Rosemary was on stage for 70 minutes of the production. Her brilliant vocals and convincing stage presence bring tragedy to life. With the film projected behind her detailing her life from birth to lobotomy, the viewer is sucked into a world where perfection is everything and where Rosemary becomes the submissive Child of Mary and is presented at court in England to please her mother. Rosemary tries, relentlessly, to please her parents. Actors Stephanie Dufresne and Ronan Leahy and narrator Aoife Spillane-Hinks take us to the world of the Kennedy Family in the 1930s and 40s playing various key storyline roles.
In November 1941 when Rosemary was just 23 years old, her father made the decision to perform a lobotomy. The procedure itself is narrated and projected, drilling into the brain while the patient recites something familiar. Perhaps most disturbingly, when the patient stops talking, the procedure is deemed successful.
Composed by Brian Irvine and directed by Netia Jones, Least Like The Other is a haunting reminder of a world that resides in living memory. A mixed media production so well suited for Linbury, I was blown away to see the band, ably performed by Fergus Sheil, tucked into glass cases either side of the main stage.
This is a story that deserves to be told and should remind us of the need to continue to challenge conventional perceptions of right and wrong. The Irish National Opera in this highly creative and revelatory production delivers a work that will disturb, shock and raise questions.
There are three shows of Least Like the Other – Searching for Rosemary Kennedy with tickets from £5 to £50
January 17-19, 7:45 p.m
Royal Opera House
London WC2E 9DD