Saturday 20 January 2018

Theatre: Sulphur of dark obsession

Well-caught atmosphere: The underlying theme of Panned is that the sole character portrayed - Sean played by Ste Murray - is a man on the edge. Photo: Jeda de Bri
Well-caught atmosphere: The underlying theme of Panned is that the sole character portrayed - Sean played by Ste Murray - is a man on the edge. Photo: Jeda de Bri

Emer O'Kelly

Sal is obsessed with lighting matches and watching them burn out. She likes the smell of sulphur, she says. The remark, seemingly inconsequential, has horrible meaning: Sal's life has been consumed in sulphur, grievous, poisonous, and destructive.

The daughter of Irish immigrants in Liverpool, Sal had a daughter of her own. Mary was 12 when she was caught in cross-fire between gangland thugs. In the way of such things, "everyone" knew who was responsible; but we live in a civilised society where proof is necessary, and nothing could be done.

So Sal made a secret covenant with herself: she would be the face of serenity, publicly forgiving her child's killers…."whoever" they were. Her magnanimity sickened her father; but her mother understood, and joined in the secret pact.

Now Sal is home on Valentia Island because her parents came back there to die, and she came too. Two of her child's killers are dead, burnt alive in their home. Their mother and brother are hideously disfigured. Nobody had spoken up about Mary's death at their hands, because such people are protected by their own. Now Sal too is protected by her own, but in a fearful isolation because implacable grief is to be feared, whether encompassed in a building flared by petrol, or in a small matchbox carried close in a pocket. The smell of sulphur engulfs her, making her untouchable.

Frank McGuinness' 2012 play The Match Box has been given its Irish premiere by Galway Arts Festival, with Cathy Belton playing Sal, and directed by Joan Sheehy. It is a searing, haunting piece, the language a perfection of soaring words which paradoxically drag one to haunted depths. The unspeakable is not spoken, but burrows into the soul, festering and scorching as it goes.

Belton's performance is extraordinary, an iron layer of control concealing a disintegrating psyche. If there is a slight criticism, the required quietness sometimes goes too far, and she could do with projecting a bit more. But The Match Box (at the Town Hall Theatre) is wondrous, set and lit by Paul Keogan, with music by Teho Teardo and sound by Helen Atkinson.

Sean and his girl friend Rachel are having a wearisome, nagging, boring row about nothing much: he baulked at having to go to Tesco's, they're on their way to a costume party (a farewell for a friend emigrating to Canada, the 10th such party they've attended in a year) and Rachel has got herself up in bra and knickers as Tinkerbell, and has demanded that Sean be Peter Pan.

He feels like a "dickhead" because he knows that the other men at the party will merely wear a mask with their jeans as a gesture.

It goes on like that, a boring, nagging diatribe, even when they get to the party, with Sean resentful of everyone on the face of the earth and taking offence at his mates' supposedly cheery insults. They're "only messing" of course. Everyone's "only messing" in a realistic portrayal of the kind of raucous moronic gathering that bores the pants off everyone who might be sober, or have a tither of real wit in their make-up.

Caitriona Daly's Panned has caught the atmosphere very well: too well, really. If such occasions are boring in reality, a depiction of them on stage is equally so, even if the underlying theme is that Sean is a man very close to the edge, in a dead-end job and having been repeatedly turned down for post-graduate master courses.

The very real pain, of course, also carries a lorryload of self-pity, which again, Daly captures very well, as does Ste Murray in his playing of Sean in this one-man piece directed by Eoghan Carrick, early evening at Theatre Upstairs at Lanigan's Bar on Eden Quay in Dublin (and lunchtime Wednesdays and Saturdays).

It's a WeGetHighOnThis collective production.

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