Review: The Last Days of a Reluctant Tyrant
Abbey Theatre, Dublin
Perhaps, in decades to come, it will be possible to separate Tom Murphy's new play from the dominant news story of the week that preceded its premiere. Or perhaps the play will come to be seen as the first, great attempt to wrestle with the demons that produced the Irish children's institutions.
For now, though, 'The Last Days of a Reluctant Tyrant' is an almost uncanny insight into the mindset and culture that sustained Letterfrack and its like. Its driving theme is the corruption of the person that is caused by the unique mixture of land poverty and Irish Catholicism that is our nation's birthright.
As that suggests, it is not always an easy play to watch. Murphy has a lot to say and, in the way of his dramatic forbears Anton Chekhov and Eugene O'Neill, he says it slowly, and with forays into didacticism and melodrama.
The "reluctant tyrant" is Arina, a poor girl who has married into a family a class above, and whose cunning and strength saves that family from collapse and builds their lands into a wealthy estate. But matriarch and mother are different roles, and in her rigour in the former she neglects the latter. The story of the play is the story of the collapse of her own family.
Marie Mullen's Arina is a furnace of controlled emotion. Though director Conall Morrison's pitch seems too high for much of the play, he and Mullen shape a closing scene that is surely one of the greatest ever seen on the Abbey stage. Declan Conlon is superb as her favourite son, and the ensemble is excellent. Tom Piper's set is strikingly effective, while Ben Ormerod's lighting is beautiful.
Tom Murphy's play is still raw, but raw is what we need now.