Saturday 22 July 2017

Theatre - Soul, history and drama itself examined

Lisa Dwyer Hogg and Sam O'Mahony in The Mariner at The Gate
Lisa Dwyer Hogg and Sam O'Mahony in The Mariner at The Gate

Emer O'Kelly

There is a sense of Hugo Hamilton nailing his colours to the mast in his new play The Mariner for the Gate Theatre. It tells a story of loss and death, but there is a tranquillity of acceptance running through the theme, the author seeming to grieve for a time when national identity could survive and thrive without bitterness under the mantle of what was then the Empire. It contrasts vividly with the thriving hatred which imbues nationalism to this day.

The Mariner's recognition and celebration of the loyalist identity as a thing of all religions and classes, rather than as it has divisively been portrayed by militant nationalism as isolated in an alien religion and an oppressive Big House, has a lot in common with Sebastian Barry's work; and like Barry, Hamilton takes his inspiration from his own family: the Royal Navy seaman grandfather who was disowned by the Nazi-sympathising son who became Hugo's father.

The play tells the story of Peter, shell-shocked, dumb, and with a head injury that seems to have deprived him of all memory. He was pulled from the freezing waters of the North Sea after the Battle of Jutland in 1916, and invalided home to his Co. Cork fishing village to the care of his young wife Sally and his suspiciously resentful mother. But is Peter really the Peter of the exemplary service record, and will the Admiralty grant him the pension which is all that will keep him and Sally from poverty?

His mother knows she taught him to swim, but rages for universal Motherhood: "Can you teach him to swim like a man possessed in a floating graveyard?" But she does not blame Britain as an alien thief of her son: rather she blames our own propensity to abandon our humanity. Sally is more pragmatic: she appeals to Miss Edith Somerville of the neighbouring village of Castletownshend whose brother is a vice-admiral, for assistance in dealing with the Admiralty.

Edith, grieving for the recent death of her partner Violet Martin ( the "Ross" of Somerville and Ross) can foresee a future that no pension can resolve as Ireland begins to tear itself apart. And with hindsight, Hamilton spells it out: Vice-Admiral Somerville was murdered in 1936 in his home in Castletownshend. Not a circle, more a jagged open wound.

The Mariner is an exquisite, bleak elegy, even if, technically speaking, Hamilton has yet to transfer fully from his novelist's mind-set: there is not quite enough exposition in the dialogue.

But with shattering performances from Ingrid Craigie, Lisa Dwyer-Hogg and Sam O'Mahony (who made a disastrous Mr. Darcy in Pride and Prejudice), and searingly delicate direction from Patrick Mason, this is a dazzlingly successful production. The sense of black suspension in Joe Vanek's empty set, lit by Sinead McKenna, with costumes by Joan O'Clery and music and sound by Denis Clohessy, all add up to a sense of seamless, enduring tragedy.

* * * * *

IF you're over 30, you may not get all of the references in PanPan's The Seagull and Other Birds. (I certainly didn't.) But it's enough to know they're there. The "other birds" are visually ugly (The Arctic Tern, The Oyster Catcher, The Gannet) but the point is to give us references beyond our dramatic expectations; and this Gavin Quinn's cast do with short, sly pieces "written" by the various cast members which denigrate the easy slickness of pop culture.

This in turn directs understanding inward: to Chekhov's theme that finding new forms is frequently self-referential and only accidentally progressive (as in the neurotic Konstantin's play within a play in The Seagull.)

Quinn's intriguing exploration (at Project for the Theatre Festival) takes us further from reality while dragging us back to face it, as the cast of six play Chekhov's characters under their own names, and with 21st century dialogue, while dressed with abstract purity in white and pale pink leotards and tutus. The device gives them an unsettling appearance of new-born purity that belies their world-weary Chekhovian preoccupation with disappointments of deceit and duplicity.

But pared down, and counterpointed as it is, it does exactly what Quinn appears to be attempting: to inhabit Chekhov's mind so intensely that it is not his writing but his purpose which is examined. It becomes the direct opposite of current preoccupations with de-construction: the result is not PanPan's vision of Chekhov, or even director Quinn's, but almost luminously Chekhov's own. And it makes unarguably clear his own description of The Seagull as a comedy.

PanPan's ensemble of Andrew Bennett, Gina Moxley, Samantha Pearl, Richard Walsh, Daniel Reardon, and Una McKevitt, do Quinn and designer Aedin Cosgrove full credit.

* * * * *

Annie Ryan's adaptation of Eimear McBride's novel A Girl Is a Half-formed Thing for Corn Exchange is very hard to bear. Visceral and brutal, its tension of wilful destructive self-degradation imbues every floating evocative phrase wrenched from the single slight figure inhabiting the stage.

It is a narration by a young woman of the interior life that manifests itself in ugly, masochistic sexual encounters, from her "initiation" by her predatory uncle at age 13, through the college years when she seeks out men, frequently begging to be hurt in memory of the time her abusive mother left her with a bruised face and bloodied nose.

The seemingly endless streams of smeared blood and semen become a viscous river that mark the psychic destruction of a once-living soul, an accompaniment to the violent, hopeless pity she feels for her brother's unfulfilled life, damaged in mind and body by the brain tumour that will kill him before he is fully a man.

The narration is stream-of-consciousness, but continually jolts the audience into horror rather than carrying it along: it's an extraordinary, sorrowful and illuminating performance from Aoife Duffin as the nameless girl, directed faultlessly by Ryan in a hideously memorable evening of pure theatre.

A Girl Is a Half-formed Thing is at the Beckett Centre in Trinity.

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