Tuesday 15 October 2019

When old wounds open and bleed anew

The Children

Gate Theatre, Dublin

The Country Girls

Abbey Theatre, Dublin

Seán McGinley and Marie Mullen in the Gate Theatre production of The Children by Lucy Kirkwood
Seán McGinley and Marie Mullen in the Gate Theatre production of The Children by Lucy Kirkwood
Grace Collender and Lola Petticrew in the adaptation of Edna O'Brien's The Country Girls at the Abbey

The Gate does modern drama, while the Abbey makes a political point, writes Emer O'Kelly.

Blood is not far from the surface in Lucy Kirkwood's play The Children. It opens with Rose having a nose bleed. Her hostess Hazel, unused to company, has lashed out in surprise.

The women are both physicists in their 60s. They have not seen each other for 30 years, when along with Hazel's husband Robin they worked at the local nuclear power station. That was before the "accident" and now the population of the small seaside town lives haunted by the resultant exclusion zone.

All except Robin, who returns daily to his former farm that's within the zone, where he spends his days burying animal corpses, including those of his own farm animals.

He runs a Geiger counter over his body when he returns; it reacts loudly. But more than the shadow of cancer stalks Robin: there was a time when he played Hazel false with their visitor and that cancer is eating away at his soul; Hazel, though, is dedicated to life and the will to live.

But Rose has a proposition. Her body maimed (as she sees it) by losing a breast to cancer, she believes that this generation can make reparation to its children by saving them from our wilful mistakes.

She has gathered a group of similar aged scientists. Will Hazel and Robin join them to take the place of the staff at the nuclear plant, all in their 20s and 30s? Their own lives are lived; the "children" have a right to a future.

Kirkwood explores one of the great moral dilemmas of our time with extraordinary delicacy (and humour) as Hazel, Robin and Rose touch their own and each other's wounds. And as the old ones open and bleed anew, they inflict new ones, unexpectedly and even unwillingly.

The Children is an English play, but director Oonagh Murphy has transposed it effortlessly to non-nuclear Ireland in her Gate production.

The transposition emphasises the universality of the threats that hang over us, not just for the future of the planet, but more nearly and painfully, to our own hearts and minds. Are we living through Endgame? Kirkwood asks, her interrogation one of gently affectionate regret.

Murphy's direction leads to an extraordinary harmony for the actors, with Ger Ryan as the disillusioned Rose, Sean McGinley trying to bury the guilt of his past as Robin, and Marie Mullen as Hazel, assuming a contented scattiness that is fractured over the course of an apocalyptic evening.

Designed by Sarah Bacon and lit by Sinead McKenna, The Children is contemporary theatre at its superb best.


In her programme note to Graham McLaren's production of The Country Girls at the Abbey, Edna O'Brien lays great emphasis on the final result being a collaboration between her as author and McLaren as director.

Grace Collender and Lola Petticrew in the adaptation of Edna O'Brien's The Country Girls at the Abbey

Certainly, the production is a lot more stylish than the original 2011 version by Red Kettle in Waterford, but then the Abbey has a far larger budget. And one is reminded that Brendan Behan's The Hostage was allegedly much more the work of Joan Littlewood at Stratford East than of the author himself. But Edna O'Brien is no self-destructive lush, and one wonders how much she asserted herself in this collaboration.

Because what is on stage seems to have moved very far from even that Waterford production, much less from the novel itself.

In the original adaptation, O'Brien's play was a recognisable version of her novel. What is on the Abbey stage is not. The innocence has almost totally disappeared; and the mood is oddly static.

The leaping hearts and fizzing, wide-eyed energy of Kate and Baba setting out on life's adventure, have been turned into a somewhat stodgy narrative, indicative of "and then; and then".

It is almost as though the production wants to hurry through the girls' story in order to reach as quickly as possible the accusing denouement: "told you it was inevitable Ireland would drive them out."

The girls, bookish Kate with her literary ambitions, and man-mad Baba with her eyes set on a "glamorous" whirlwind, are indeed "driven out" - but the story of how they reached the point of boarding the boat is the point of The Country Girls.

And in McLaren's production the funny, palpitating spirit of hopeful youth gets lost in what seems a determination to make a political point - that Ireland was hell on earth in the 1950s. And even if you agree, O'Brien made the point originally with ironic, joyous verve.

Baba (Lola Pettigrew) almost disappears from the stage narrative, which concentrates on Kate's (Grace Collender) dilemma over the middle-aged married Mr Gentleman (Steven McCarthy, who needs more than a pair of glasses to bring him to life).

The support cast play several roles each, almost without definition (particularly the men). They are also burdened with the puzzling decision to interject a couple of balletic sequences, as when Kate is lifted by "chorus boys" to be deposited on her boarding school bed.

And the decision to inject the ghost of Kate's dead mother (Lisa Lambe) singing the odd sad Irish song is merely embarrassing.

But at least Francis O'Connor's black and white set, with furniture flown in and left hanging in mid-air is an elegant fantasy.

Sunday Independent

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