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How we do love in the time of death

The Noble Call

Bewley’s Cafe Theatre, Dublin

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Noni Stapleton and Vinnie McCabe in 'The Noble Call' at Bewley's Cafe Theatre

Noni Stapleton and Vinnie McCabe in 'The Noble Call' at Bewley's Cafe Theatre

Noni Stapleton and Vinnie McCabe in 'The Noble Call' at Bewley's Cafe Theatre

We've seen it all before. One of the reasons two-hander plays featuring ageing parent and worn-out adult child are so popular is that they're not too costly to produce and can be toured easily.

The other reason is that they have instant recognition: the theme is universal, and can be anything from heart-breaking to life-enhancing. Some of them are good; others have little to recommend them. Michael Harnett's The Noble Call is in the former category.

Da is in hospital, apparently suffering from emphysema, still smoking, and with only days to live, which he knows. He wants to sort out his few affairs. Daughter Mona visits him daily, stressed and distressed, and willing to carry out his wishes, which involve leaving his will in the cabinet in his now empty house until after he is cremated.

It's all very fair, he promises, so there'll be no trouble ahead.

But there's a letter attached, and now he wants to tell Mona its contents: he should have done it years ago, before Mona's mother died, he admits uncomfortably. It's a story of parentage: nurture or nature (as in birth)?

Not very shocking, except when it's in your own family, and Mona "the moaner" of the family must come to terms with an unsuspected separateness. Her irritating and much-loved Da isn't her Da.

Harnett's structure is, to put it mildly, shaky. There is far too much crowded into what are supposed to be the last two days of Da's life.

But this is easy to forgive in theatrical terms, largely due to pretty perfect dialogue and two endearing, utterly delightful performances, low-key and heartfelt, from Noni Stapleton and Vinnie McCabe, directed by Elyn Friedrichs. Design is by John O'Reilly.

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Women's stories are being 'recovered' at a rate of knots. It's happening in literature, where the wives and lovers of eminent/famous/infamous men become the subjects of biography, fantasy and novels, to be newly proclaimed as having been unjustly ignored, and by implication equally deserving of note and notice.

On stage and in film, classic plays and novels are given new perspectives, which effectively mean a distortion of truth (in biography) and a complete betrayal of the original work in literature and drama.

It is not popular to say so, but this is doing no service to women; it should be the essence of feminism to portray women's strength, which means not casting them as perpetual, eternal victims.

But even when the stories are of women who WERE victims (whether imagined women in plays and novels, or figures from history) they are frequently re-invented as bitter, resentful, enraged and miserable. Because, it is argued, they SHOULD have been bitter, resentful, enraged and miserable.

But when women scholars misrepresent their predecessors, real or imagined, they are creating an essentially dishonest narrative. Or at the very least, endowing women with a spurious equality, in the guise of 'shining a light' on the partners of famous men, when their only claim to eminence or fame is that they were such partners, and nothing else.

In theatre, I've seen more than a few 'versions' of plays that deliberately reverse the intent of the original, including a Taming of the Shrew from Shakespeare's Globe where Kate, far from delivering Shakespeare's lines as they are written, is presented as terminally hate-filled and about to be a permanent rape victim in her husband's bed rather than converted to swooningly romantic submission.

That is not a new perspective: it is distortion and unworthy of any director, whose duty should be to respect an author's intent (even if the author is a man).

Not all women want or deserve power (as indeed, neither do all men) and when we subvert art to make an untenable argument we are actually shaming women: if we believe in ourselves and our ethics and instincts, truth and fairness should come first.

Sunday Indo Living