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Theatre Review: Tolstoy's family affairs and funerals

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Theatre in Dublin, Peter Reid’s adaptation of Leo Tolstoy’s short story The Devil for an Irish audience. Photo: Al Craig

Theatre in Dublin, Peter Reid’s adaptation of Leo Tolstoy’s short story The Devil for an Irish audience. Photo: Al Craig

Theatre in Dublin, Peter Reid’s adaptation of Leo Tolstoy’s short story The Devil for an Irish audience. Photo: Al Craig

I HAVEN'T, to my shame, read Tolstoy's short story The Devil, although I will now. Peter Reid has adapted it for AC Productions, playing at the New Theatre in Dublin, and it's nothing short of a treat. Re-titled Desire for the stage, and transposed to 21st-Century Ireland, it tells the story of a cold-hearted, spoiled man living with two obsessions: the lower-class woman he hires for sex without involvement, and his near-equal, socially speaking, whom he marries for social companionship and neighbourhood acceptability. The result is tragedy, as he learns the extremely hard way that urges of the heart and urges of the body are both complicated, to be separated at the peril of the one who tries.

Eugene is a younger son, and thus free to choose his own way, which he does as a financial consultant in London. Then his father dies, and he is seized with a fierce longing to restore the family estates back in Ireland, long neglected by his ailing father and his playboy elder brother.

But sex is a problem for the son of the big house in a small town in Ireland. In London, he conducted his affairs without emotion or commitment, and with decorum, on both sides of his "arrangements". The answer seems to be Serafina, his solicitor's beautiful Latvian cleaning woman, deserted by her husband, and with a reputation for part-time prostitution.

But loneliness of the spirit strikes, and Eugene meets and ultimately marries the prettily suitable daughter of the manager of the family factory. Emotional destitution and fierce rage are the inevitable result, in a truly bleak and Russian landscape of retribution.

They are brought to life with controlled, magnificently timed and nuanced desolation by Neill Fleming under Reid's delicately balanced direction. Indeed, both are a marvel. Which makes it seem unfair to criticise the choice of time and place. But the piece is far too intensely 19th-Century Tsarist in both its setting and its attitudes to survive the Irish modern transposition successfully.

The family estate is clearly the size of Ireland itself, and both Eugene's and his mother's attitudes towards his wife's delicacy in pregnancy are ludicrous in a modern context, as is the implied patriarchy of the local system.

What 21st-Century man could contemplate as a realistic possibility his wife's death in childbirth as a way out of an emotional dilemma? In the 1880s, it was an everyday possibility.

But if the transposition strains the piece to the uttermost, Desire is still a quite marvellous piece of theatre.

*****

Two sisters are clearing out their mother's house in the aftermath of her funeral. Now how often have we seen that before as a theatrical scenario? I've lost count. But I have never seen it used so effectively as an examination of genuine, if bizarre, family psychosis.

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Jean has returned to Dublin for the funeral from an apparently successful life in London; even though she speaks quite deprecatingly of it. Sarah has stayed at home in the classic elder-sister role of caring for their mother. The role was so demanding that she has only recently managed to find time or energy to take up paid employment. The setting is a visible testament to what seems to have been mother's eccentricity: she was a hoarder. Her dispirited daughters try to deal with the rat-infested junk which has forced mother and daughter to live in a single room.

Rows of jars are only one of many "collections". The jars contain the records of Sarah's life: her toys, even some of her clothes. In contrast, Jean has made no mark, just as their father seems also to have made none since the day he walked out when the girls were tiny.

Authors Jeda de Bri and Finbarr Doyle develop a nicely measured picture of near-psychopathic, unexplainable behaviour within family boundaries, of irrational loathing and cruelty falling outside the remit of any kind of "agency," social or, for that matter, spiritual. It's dazzlingly effective, a clear-sighted little examination of the reality of some "mother love" and the reverence with which it is usually defended as, at worst, misguided rather than destructive and hate-filled.

Slippers is a Sickle Moon production at lunchtime at Theatre Upstairs at Lanigan's on Eden Quay, Dublin, where the company has taken up a residency. It's tautly directed by de Bri, and there's an excellent set by Aoife Fealy. Katie McCann plays Jean with great control, letting her emotional damage emerge as a slow nightmare. Sonya O'Donoghue is Sarah, a little less comfortable in the persona, but that's largely due to the actor herself not seeming quite comfortable in her body.


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