Gate Theatre, Dublin until April 1
Enda Walsh’s absurdist drama about fear of the outside gets an elegant revival in director Emma Jordan’s sensitive hands.
Set in a coastal town where everyone makes a living from fishing, we meet three sisters. The two older ones, Breda (Barbara Brennan) and Clara (Jane Brennan), never go out. The younger one Ada (Orla Fitzgerald) works in the fish-canning factory office. Every day a fishmonger, Patsy (Marty Rea), comes to deliver fish. He may be in love with Ada. The women together act out the dominating tragedy of their lives in costume: an event in the older girls’ late teens where they both experience bitter romantic blows at the New Electric Ballroom, a dancehall ten miles from their home. They now both suffer from a type of agoraphobia.
Pinning a medical label on their condition robs it of its theatricality, however; the phobia functions more as a metaphor for fear of love. Most Irish plays about damaged individuals concern themselves with finding something to blame: the church, politicians, an abuser. There is no villain here — the problems are primarily within.
Jordan’s production leans heavily into the theatricality. In Kat Heath’s designs, sequins and rhinestones in the costumes and rusted corrugated walls locate the drama in an ambiguous realm between an Irish kitchen and pure theatre. Ciarán Bagnall’s lighting is simply exquisite, bare bulbs and coloured globes make for a magical atmosphere; the outside glows with equal parts promise and menace.
Since its premiere in Galway’s Druid 15 years ago, Walsh’s writing has become much more familiar to audiences. His style here is Beckett-influenced poetic; he astutely uses repetition, and the action has plenty of surprises. The show’s great success is the fact that though the characters are painted in broad absurdist strokes, you feel for them. When the possibility of a happy ending is dangled, you want it to happen.
But among all the impressive theatrics there is a wisdom deficit in Walsh’s oblique emotional currents. What is being said here? Is it a plea that love takes courage? Or is it a writer seduced by the idea of shut-in women, who sees no real possibility for them other than as theatrical phantoms in the ballroom of his head?