Monday 16 September 2019

Cleft at The Watergate Theatre, Kilkenny: Dark material offers a faint glimmer of light

Running until Sunday

Cleft by Rough Magic. Photograph by Eamon Ward
Cleft by Rough Magic. Photograph by Eamon Ward
Penny Layden in Cleft. Photograph by Eamon Ward

Katy Hayes

Actor and writer Fergal McElherron's new play is a grim story set in a grim landscape. Two sisters have their troubles. They are raising a child together and it is his fifth birthday. It takes a while to work out which sister is the mother. One is certainly warmer than the other. They live on a remote island called Inis Briste where "the waves take a run at the land like a bull". The island is connected to the mainland by a causeway that is only visible at low tide.

Set in the recent past, the story has a timeless feel. The women's misfortunes are unfurled. Their mother ran off when they were children. Their father stuck around until they were teenagers, long enough for Caireen (Penny Layden) to suffer an accident which resulted in her legs being amputated from the knee down.

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Their father made her a pair of wooden prosthetics - "I have Mammy's legs" - and attached wheels to an old armchair so she could get around. Then he, too, disappeared, leaving them to fend for themselves. Fea (Simone Kirby) suffered her traumas later.

Parentless, they process all this pain and discover what kind of parents they themselves can be. Told in interlocking monologues over 75 minutes, we get the gruesome details of how Caireen lost her legs; we hear about the arrival of the child's father on the island. Fea is defiant, wounded and angry. Caireen maintains a sunny shaft of optimism, despite everything. The child doesn't appear for his birthday, despite their calls. McElherron's pen relishes the gruesome, piling disaster upon disaster; the local post-mistress has lost an eye in a sordid accident; the child is born with a split lip.

Produced by Rough Magic and Glór, this premiered at the Galway International Arts Festival and plays now at the Kilkenny Arts Festival. It was written for the two actors and both Kirby and Layden give superb contrasting performances. Director Lynne Parker follows the story's grim path with an icy control. Caireen's sweet maternal love, her optimism despite the loss of her legs, provides a slender thread of positivity. Composer/sound designer Cameron Macaulay's extensive soundscape is first-rate, adding atmosphere as well as drama, creating a textured island-world of sound.

This is a cold play that grows on you as it pummels you into submission, like the waves against the shore. The darkness is so absolute, the faint glimmer of light at the end shines like a faraway torch in a lonely landscape.

Not very cheering, but memorable in its own unrelenting way.

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