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Theatre: Solar Bones... A ‘must see’ tale of a plague in our times

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Stanley Townsend as Marcus in Solar Bones

Stanley Townsend as Marcus in Solar Bones

Stanley Townsend as Marcus in Solar Bones

Set in 2008, as Ireland collapsed into financial chaos and ruin, Michael West's stage adaptation of Mike McCormack's multi-award winning novel Solar Bones was a Rough Magic production at the Kilkenny Arts Festival, one of the few pieces of theatre to play to a cruelly limited live audience since the spring. Limited (obviously) by restrictions, it has now been made available as a filmed performance on the RTÉ Culture channel, and it deserves the appalling, over-used 'must see' tag.

Its extraordinary, visceral impact lies with its relevance to the here and now. The financial crash was a plague caused by greed and corruption; and today we are dealing with another plague, one which in times past would have been called an act of God.

Marcus Conway, the protagonist of Solar Bones, is alone in his kitchen on All Souls' Day, the Day of the Dead, when it is believed in folklore that the dead walk. A lonely voice against local corruption in his part of the west of Ireland, he has been shunned and isolated for his integrity. Many stood to gain if Marcus, the structural engineer on local state projects, signed off on corruption-driven conveyancing of dangerous materials. So far, so recognisable.

And now, an almost ghostly figure, Marcus sits in his desolate kitchen, recalling his wife being poisoned by cryptosporidiosis (through drinking water in a restaurant… while toasting their daughter). The ghastly faecal infection burned her up as her body successively evacuated itself. Helpless, he went to put the filthy bedlinen in the washing machine, only to have her demand that he destroy it.

It had happened when they attended, proud parents of an artist daughter, the opening of the 22-year-old's first solo exhibition: reports of trials and crimes from the local paper, written in Agnes's own blood, to her father's horror.

Another foundation brick has already fallen from the wall of Marcus's marriage: while at a bridge-building conference in Prague he visited the Museum of Torture, and struck by the engineering skills in the monstrous exhibits, he sought comfort from uneasy professional guilt in a one-night stand. Now that is one of the ghosts which haunt him on this day.

Solar Bones is a huge metaphor for a society on the edge of the abyss, structured on smaller metaphors of distrust, betrayal and regret. But Marcus must go on.

Or must he? Ultimately, the play asks: in truth, did he? Are Marcus's bones a mirage?

McCormack's achievement was to produce a metaphysical denouement which could have been both trite and obvious; except that it floors you like a disabling blow to the solar plexus.

West rose to the challenge of adapting it for Rough Magic, almost 'rendering' the piece for stage, as meat is rendered in a factory. The result is riveting theatre, which loses nothing in its translation to film.

Stanley Townsend is agonised, controlled perfection, drawing the audience into the soul, not just of Marcus, but into the soul of our fractured society. And Lynne Parker's direction is, to her credit, invisible. Zia Bergin-Holly was responsible for set and lighting, both of which translate satisfactorily to screen, and sound is by Denis Clohessy.

With luck, Solar Bones will be seen in its original format in more normal times; it certainly deserves it.

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