Tuesday 25 October 2016

Theatre: Wreaking havoc on small-town rituals

* The Wake, Abbey
* Theatre Pink Milk, New Theatre, Dublin

Emer O'Kelly

Published 04/07/2016 | 02:30

Wild stuff: Aisling O'Sullivan and Brian Doherty in Annabelle Comyn's production of The Wake.
Wild stuff: Aisling O'Sullivan and Brian Doherty in Annabelle Comyn's production of The Wake.

A surreal approach highlights Tom Murphy's tale of greed.

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At one stage in The Wake, Vera says "I need to think I was real because I came from here".  It's a cry of anguish from a woman  whose roots have been screaming, mandrake-like, since they were torn from her west of Ireland home town. Now she is back there, determined to wreak havoc.

Vera is a prostitute ... a fairly high class one ... in New York; and she has given up a "conference contract" to come home for her grandmother's wake.

The family, secure in their small-town respectability, and not wanting it disturbed, had not informed her of the imminent death.

They had tried to manipulate the old woman into leaving all her property between them; but outraged at their greed, she has left the family hotel, once also the family home, to Vera, who loved her unconditionally. So there is more than one reason why her brother and sisters don't want Vera next or nigh the place, pressing her wild finger on their fragile "decency" until it shatters..

And as she witnesses what "real" means in her family's terms, Vera sets herself out on a path of destruction, seeking out her first boyfriend, a drunken settled traveller and local ne-er do well.

She also seduces her pompous brother-in-law, the ultra-respectable barrister Henry, and the three indulge in a three-day Bacchanal in the locked hotel, lights blazing and windows uncurtained for all to see, including Henry's distraught and bewildered wife.

There is an almost Greek sense of inevitable tragedy as Vera, half-clad and raving, crawls between the two men in a conversation that is more a monologue of hideous self-discovery and despair.

Family greed and the manipulation of the old and helpless is an all-too-familiar phenomenon in Irish life. But it takes a master playwright to turn a familiar story into a masterpiece of terror and revenge. And The Wake, given an almost surreal production by Annabelle Comyn at the Abbey, is a terrifying, draining spectacle.

Led by paterfamilias Tom and relentlessly greedy sister Mary Jane, the family has Vera committed, and when she returns to their "bosom" she is submissive and malleable, apparently penitent in her black dress as she pours drinks at what is now a (horribly) conventional wake.

And then she leaves. Vera has seen at first hand the reality to which she had looked for stability; her choice is stark, and as dignified as it is terrible in its search for morality: she returns to her life in New York and we are left to believe that prostitution is superior and more honest than what she has left behind in sober, respectable Ireland.

Aisling O'Sullivan is devastating in the role of Vera, a termagant railing against the destruction of everything she had clung to: the performance tears your heart out. And she is matched by a maudlin, pathetic Frank McCusker as Henry, perhaps deservedly brought to destruction at her hands. And then there is Brian Doherty in a tour de force as the drunken, equally vengeful Finbarr. They are wild stuff, brought into vicious relief by extraordinarily effective performances from Kelly Campbell and Tina Kellegher as the sisters, and Lorcan Cranitch as the bullying Tom.

Comyn has done Tom Murphy proud, and the design team have done her vision of Murphy's devastating morality play proud: set by Paul O'Mahony, lighting by Sinead McKenna, costume by Sarah Bacon, and music by Philip Stewart.

The producers of Lauren Shannon-Jones's Pink Milk include an explanatory flyer in the programme. Just as well in my case, as without it I wouldn't have had a clue as to what was supposed to be going on. Actually, even with the flyer, I didn't really understand what was going on, because it didn't actually seem to relate to the flyer explanation.

It's an in-house production at the New Theatre in Dublin, and is billed as a dystopian love-story.

What I got out of it was that it seemed to be about us all going zombily loopy because we're using up the planet's resources by too much consumerism, and too little thought and physical activity. And that's a worthwhile message (if it really was the play's message).

But the action, what there is of it, consists of a man wearing an animal head delivering endless parcels to a woman who explains that she lives on the top floor of a tower block, but never goes out (no reason given.)

The man then goes home and plays computer games endlessly. But through the proximity of his deliveries, he falls for the girl.

Meanwhile, in another universe, a woman (same woman) controls the world through her telecasts lauding entertainment as all. But she's controlled by an evil god; you've guessed it, he's the delivery man wearing an overcoat.

It ends for some unfathomable reason with the young woman (not sure whether it's in her flat-dweller self or her goddess self) making him kiss a gun before she puts it in his mouth (with his assistance) and blows his brains out.

The acting is quite accomplished (Megan O'Flynn and Shane Robinson) and the production values are a cracker with a set by Janna Kemperman, visuals by Kevin Freeney, lighting by Cathy O'Carroll and music by Dylan Tonge Jones. Direction is by Nora Kelly Lester.

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