Tuesday 24 October 2017

East Pier surpasses The Passing



IRISH society is broken; yeah, we know. And while the arts, almost inevitably, will reflect this, even have a duty to do so, they need to do it with breadth, depth, originality and a creative slant. And these are not exactly evident in Paul Mercier's The Passing, the first of two new plays of his which the Abbey is presenting in repertory.

The Passing is very, very slight. Many plays are, but this one seems to have pretensions of serious commentary on life and society. Yet Mercier as director gives the impression of being well aware of its superficiality as he rushes frantically through its lack of depth, lack of conviction and lack of creative credibility.

There is room for honourable failure in theatre, certainly, but the main stage of a national theatre in any country is, or should be, something of a sacred space.

Experiment that says nothing, develops nothing, argues nothing and is technically inept to an alarming degree has no place there.

This play is set in an empty semi-detached house on a "settled" housing estate in the course of a day-and-a-half.

Anthony Lamble's set is immensely complicated, as well as being an uneasy cross between naturalism (the living area) and post-modern dereliction (the bedroom floor, which for some reason falls away into a partition of nothingness).

The characters crash around this awkward space, conducting conversations with each other up a staircase and through three supposedly solid walls. In what is clearly meant to be a moving denouement, one character feeds another dinner. They are in a room with seating for eight people, but he stands shovelling in his food while she stands facing him, flap-doodling her entire life's emotional baggage at him. They have met once for 10 minutes.

This is direction?

The plot, which seems self-consciously to be a non-plot, concerns one of those women who create havoc wherever they go. Director Billy Wilder summed them up, speaking of Marilyn Monroe: "She was a very terrible person; she liked to spread a little unhappiness wherever she could."

Catherine has returned to the house where she grew up, it having been left jointly to her and her sister and brother after the death of their mother. They have a signed and sealed legal agreement to sell the house, but Catherine has changed her mind. She hates her brother and sister; they hate her, perhaps understandably. But they also hate each other. They all hate their husbands/wives and boyfriends. They all appear to be the lousiest of parents and blame each other for it. And they've all screwed up their work lives as well. The full kit and caboodle, in fact.

Yes, most families are dysfunctional to one degree or another: denying it is often a signal of just how bad the dysfunction is. But this piece offers no grasp on reason or reality, just embarrassingly creaking dialogue that attempts "explication".

It's mercifully short (just under 90 minutes). The cast is a distinguished one, so one can only feel rather sorry for them: Catherine Walsh, Andrew Connolly, Peter Hanly, Roxanna Nic Liam, Kathy Rose O'Brien, Nick Lee, Andrew Bennett and Ali White.

The companion piece which runs in repertory is The East Pier, a two-hander of reminiscence and lost opportunity. A man and a woman enter a hotel in Dun Laoghaire which has been closed down (how they get in is not explained, though neither seems to be a skilled burglar).

They have met by chance in the nearby shopping centre and spend the next hour-and-a-half retracing their aborted teenage love affair -- again, rigidly upright for most of the time, although chairs stand about in high stacks.

Their long-ago affair culminated on the rocks on the shoreline of Dun Laoghaire harbour, romantic nesting place for almost countless young and not-so-young couples over the years. Theirs, though, is complicated.

Jean suffered from a uterine condition which involved her being on the pill at 17, but having promised her mother that she would not use it as an excuse to "go off and have sex". Kevin knew about the pill but not about her promise, and not the fact that her condition would at the time have made sex painful. So he took off in dudgeon when she refused him.

Now she is married, with a seven-year-old adopted daughter. He is also married with teenage sons. She is a successful management consultant -- though her description of her work doesn't sound like any consultancy I've ever heard of. He is less successful, with a phone-selling business that is about to go belly up.

The reminiscence starts like the number from Gigi: "We met at nine; we met at eight. I was on time; no, you were late. Ah yes, I remember it well." He remembers, she corrects. And then we settle down to minutiae of houses, family dinners, parties, school friends and their pairings-off, and the sad little snubs and disappointments of youth, all delivered in the present tense, for no fathomable reason.

Except that (miraculously or ludicrously, depending on your reaction) the very night before this accidental meeting, Jean has decided that she "can't go on" -- the emotional collapse triggered by the non-event of her teenage liaison. And Kevin admits that he has spent the intervening years, off and on, driving to look at the house in which her family once lived, although they have long since moved away.

You could call it touching if it were the memory of an actual affair of real intensity, however brief. A teenage row between a half-boyfriend/girl-friend relationship just doesn't hold water as the trigger for a storm of lifelong regret.

The East Pier is too wordy and too awkward, but it is a better piece than its companion. However, Mercier's direction is equally awkward. Normal movement seems an anathema to him: everyone must fly hysterically around the place or be rigidly static.

Don Wycherley and Andrea Irvine work hard as Kevin and Jean, but neither seems particularly comfortable and Irvine has considerable projection problems, which is odd, considering her experience and familiarity with the Abbey stage.

Sunday Independent

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