Saturday 24 March 2018

Plumbing the depths of heart and soul

  • On Blueberry Hill, Pavilion, Dun Laoghaire
  • Ulysses, Abbey Theatre
  • Nora, Project Arts Centre
Ulysses at the Abbey Theatre
Ulysses at the Abbey Theatre
David Ganly and Niall Buggy in 'On Blueberry Hill' by Sebastian Barry. A Fishamble production. Photo: Patrick Redmond
Declan Conlon, Chris McHallem and Annie Ryan in Nora at the Project. Photos: Ros Kavanagh

Emer O'Kelly

Sebastian Barry's new play is a devastating yet fine work of art, says our reviewer.

Given Sebastian Barry's clouds of glory from his world-acclaimed The Steward of Christendom, to say he has matched, or even surpassed it, is phenomenal. But he's done it again with On Blueberry Hill, a deceptively simple premise of love, humanity, understanding and weakness, as well as fear and agony beyond the depths of compassion.

The powerful tension between unspeakable pain, rage and despair is once again set against a survival instinct that ultimately can bring tenderness and resignation; and once again, Barry's poetic cadences also manage to strike a bond with everyday speech that makes the language of "the common man" soar to almost unimaginable heights.

Christy and PJ are two Dubliners, and they've been roommates for more than 20 years. Except that the room is a cell in Mountjoy, where both are serving sentences for murder. PJ was nearly a priest, until he fell deeply, tormentedly in love with a fellow seminarian. But in those times, there was no understanding of human frailty, and it led to a ghastly tragedy. And now PJ is paying the price of having "shamed" his middle class family and his "vocation".

Christy is different: he was once wild, a "proud tinker" and he once had a son. He didn't mind when the boy "pulled himself up by his bootstraps" and ended up studying for the priesthood. Christy felt no resentment that his boy's new life was seen as putting him "above his class".

But tragedy is a great leveller, and fierce pride can go hand in hand with passionate hatred. When tragedy struck, Christy had no way of dealing with it other than violently and viscerally.

Christy and PJ, tied together by a darkness almost beyond comprehension, live together in a calm tolerance that approaches a sort of love as they survive the petty inhumanities and indignities of prison life.

On Blueberry Hill takes us into a well of liberating despair. To write more would be to destroy an ingeniously worked plotline, but this is a superb, devastating play, with fine performances from David Ganly as PJ and Niall Buggy (especially) as the still-untamed Christy.

It is triumphantly directed by Jim Culleton, slowly, relentlessly, with a stillness that tears the heart out. It's a Fishamble production at the Pavilion in Dun Laoghaire, designed by Sabine Dargent and lit by Mark Galione, and is not to be missed, although it is bound to have an after-life following the Theatre Festival.


How do you solve a problem like Ulysses? As in the problem of putting it on stage when it is a massive tome of great fame, and with a reputation almost equally divided between being fascinating and hilarious, or intellectually beyond the comprehension of "ordinary" readers?

Dermot Bolger has solved it fairly satisfactorily in his adaptation, deciding to play to the comedic and visual strengths, ignoring the more abstruse elements, and giving a (probably well-deserved) kick to the literary purists.

Originally staged five years ago at the Tron theatre in Glasgow, the Bolger Ulysses has now been given a vibrant, tumultuous production at the Abbey.

Director Graham McLaren's approach seems almost equally divided between a rancid appreciation of the scatological elements, and a commitment to the essence of Leopold Bloom's innate decency and tolerance as he drifts his sad way through the teeming variations of Dublin life on June 16, 1904. In the process, the role of the miserably lost Stephen Dedalus (Donal Gallery) is somewhat played down, losing a bit of character balance, but not too likely to upset the average theatre-goer.

The Abbey space has been transformed into a traverse presentation by McLaren, who also designed, and we are in an arena with Molly's bed at its heart, as the action swirls round her from Sandymount Strand and her husband's encounter with Gerty MacDowell, to Barney Kiernan's pub and the argument with the venom-spitting Citizen, the cab ride to Paddy Dignam's funeral, and Bella Cohen's brothel, where both Stephen and Bloom suffer their nightmarish, mocking torment.

It all ends, as end it must, with Molly's soliloquy, splendidly delivered by Janet Moran, with David Pearse's lugubriously recumbent Bloom at her feet.

There's a sickeningly self-satisfied Blazes Boylan from Garrett Lombard along the way, and terrifically energetic support from Raymond Keane, Bryan Burroughs (as Bella Cohen, among others), Caitriona Ennis and Faoileann Cunningham.

John Beale is the musical director, and Gavin Glover's marvellous puppets add to the sense of music hall, with movement by Eddie Kay, lighting by Kevin McFadden, and costumes by Niamh Lunny.


Nora looks wonderful. The set is cool. The gear is equally cool. This is sophistication on the hoof. Except it's not.

Belinda McKeon's take on Henrik Ibsen's A Doll's House tries far too hard and ends up failing utterly to convince that the author has managed to inhabit a slightly futuristic world of international chic - in her version, the Helmers run an art gallery, rather than Torvald/Turlough working in a bank. And rather than living in an unspecified Norwegian town, they live in an unspecified international capital city, probably New York, since Nora and her daughter have American accents.

Yes, the daughter. Rather than Nora being the mother of a couple of very small children, she has one 15-year-old daughter, whom she dresses and parades at an adult party like a doll.

And in the aftermath of the (again, very cool) party, it's the young Emmy rather than her mother who is the recipient of the lustful declaration by family friend Ron/Dr Rank (here the architect of Nora and Turlough's house).

This (unsuccessfully) introduces a "modern" element of child molestation. It was only on reading the programme note that I discovered that it represents McKeon's notion of dividing Nora into two, as it were.

The other "cool" modern element is the arrival of Nora's old schoolfriend Krista/Christine. Except she's now not an old schoolfriend, but an old lover of Nora's, abandoned when Nora met Turlough/Torvald. And Krista is also an illegal immigrant (oh, pull-eeease!).

And the revelation of the secret eating away at the marriage (in the original, Nora's having illegally borrowed money for a trip abroad for a rest cure for her ill husband) is a rather badly expounded tale of her having underhandedly bought a forged painting for the gallery from Kroger/Krogstad (I think), which the unsuspecting Turlough then sold as genuine, setting himself on the map in the process. And now Kroger is demanding Turlough's support for a new artistic endeavour.

So, we arrive at the denouement (rather suddenly). Nora announces she's leaving, Turlough collapses (literally to his knees) and Nora stares bleakly at everyone else. Curtain.

Somehow, I doubt Ibsen would have recognised it as a play about female self-determination. This Nora shows all the signs of latter-day feminism over the emergent genuine stuff as espoused by Ibsen (and Shaw): probably screwing Turlough for alimony, rather than stepping proudly into a future of self-supporting poverty and loneliness.

And the dialogue is horribly clunky into the bargain.

Weirdly, none of this is the fault of a terrific cast: Annie Ryan's low-key, slightly screwball Nora is a delight; Declan Conlon's Turlough is a restrained sophisticate; Venetia Bowe's Emmy is joyously gawky; and Chris McHallem, Peter Gaynor and Clare Perkins all deliver what should be convincing performances as Ron, Kroger and Krista respectively.

The elegant design is by Paul O'Mahony (set) and Katie Crowley (costumes), with lighting by Sarah Jane Shiels and sound by Philip Stewart. Not a fault in sight. But...

Ryan seldom puts a foot wrong with her company Corn Exchange, but her judgment has seriously let her down with this self-regarding, self-conscious twaddle, directed by Eoghan Carrick (At the Project).

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