Monday 19 March 2018

Destruction: by word and by ugly deed

  • Tribes, Gate Theatre
  • King of the Castle, Gaiety Theatre
Sean McGinley and Seana Kerslake star in 'King of the Castle'
Sean McGinley and Seana Kerslake star in 'King of the Castle'

Emer O'Kelly sees two powerfully different takes on family.

For the family in Nina Raine's Tribes, self-esteem is dependent on making everyone else feel as bad as possible. Except for Billy, who was born profoundly deaf.

And in the way of current fashions of inclusion during his childhood, the family brought him up to lip-read, without learning sign language.

Only problem is, they are all too self-centred ever to make the effort of speaking intelligibly towards him so that he can read them.

In fact, they spend all their time shouting abuse at each other, father Christopher, a successful writer, using spiteful sarcasm; mother Beth an aspiring writer controlled and manipulated ruthlessly by her husband; son Daniel, who hears voices, and unable to cope with the outside world, has moved back home; and daughter Ruth, a wannabe singer who has only made it to the pub circuit, and who has never left home. And then there's Billy: he tunes out, and who could blame him?

Enter Sylvia, beautiful, spirited, and Billy's first girlfriend. They met at a group for deaf people. Born to deaf parents, Sylvia used to be able to hear; now she too is going deaf and she is profoundly fearful and sad.

Fluent in signing, she teaches Billy, enabling them to communicate while leaving the noisy, argumentative family outside their realm. And when Billy and Sylvia decide to move in together, the family is devastated: after all, why would he leave, he's so loved? And Billy lets fly.

Except this is a play about communication… and tribes. Sylvia is drawn to Billy's family simply because they can hear, a tribal experience different from her own, while Billy is liberated by the exactitude of signing and the experience of excluding rather than being excluded. Only for Sylvia, the increasing loss of her hearing is a bleak deprivation, because signing is not precise enough for irony; "I loved my irony," she mourns.

The message is both simple and complex: we all need our tribes, while also yearning for what we see as the liberation of other tribes.

But none is perfect, and we have to learn to live with difference and imperfection, the loss of emotional exactitude in the turmoil of living. Billy manages survival, while his brother, initially merely angry, slides further into schizophrenia due to the loss of the familiarity of Billy's presence.

Director Oonagh Murphy's realisation for the Gate is wonderfully nuanced in the cacophony of Raine's coruscating dialogue, supported by stiletto intelligence in the performance of all involved, Nick Dunning and Fiona Bell as the parents, with Alex Nowak as the hapless Billy, Gavin Drea as Daniel, Grainne Keenan as Ruth, and a luminous Clare Dunne as Sylvia.

Conor Murphy's design, allied to Conor McIvor's video montage, add perfectly to the troubled layers of meaning and illusion, and sound is by Ivan Birthistle. ******

The annual rutting of the stag has a nobility about it. Bring rutting into the farmyard, though, and it becomes demeaning and ugly. And when it is human animals who are rutting, there is a stench of obscenity about it.

And that, with its inevitable tragedy, is the subject of King of the Castle, Eugene McCabe's powerful, ugly tragedy from 1964, given an uncompromising, vicious production by director Garry Hynes for Druid at the Gaiety in the final week of the Dublin Theatre Festival.

Scober MacAdam has defeated his rivals in the rutting: he has won his much younger wife Tressa, thanks, his rivals believe, solely to his earlier financial ruttings which dragged him from dire poverty to ownership of the Big House, where Tressa feels uneasily alien.

But the baying of the pack mocks Scober: he is sexually impotent and the loud, local sniggerings follow his enraged, humiliated soul. His solution is to proposition and engage Lynch, a travelling labourer, to impregnate his wife and then disappear.

"He's got everything a woman needs except money," he goads his wife as Lynch watches with mute rage, while he, Scober, has "the power to buy" if nothing else.

But Tressa has the power "to drain a man, make a child, rear a man". Except that unlike her husband, she has not been drained of her humanity, and he fails to recognise the intricacy of a heart which can love wholly while not wholly satisfied.

Hynes paints the play in epic style across a magnificent set by Francis O'Connor which gives us the mechanical fecundity of the annual threshing overlaying the dusty shadows where Scober's depleted masculinity rots away. Dwarfed within it, Sean McGinley's Scober, taciturn and emotionally flailing by turns, screams for our pity in the midst of our contempt, while Seana Kerslake's more easily sympathetic Tressa offers herself mutely to a society which has no capacity for nuance or innocence: it knows only the politics of the slaughterhouse and the mating pen.

Ryan Donaldson completes the doomed trio as Lynch, an inarticulate bear trapped by the inheritance of crude need.

Marty Rea, John Olohan and Bosco Hogan head the large and splendid support cast, all beautifully choreographed by David Bolger into a deceptively idyllic pastoral canvas. The cruelly apt lighting is by James F Ingalls.

King of the Castle is a play which deliberately spits in the face of the complacent Irish assumption of peasant "nobility" and gives us the perennially ugly truth. Maybe we should listen.

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