Wednesday 18 July 2018

A masterpiece despite flaws


TOM Murphy's new play for the Abbey, The Last Days of a Reluctant Tyrant, may be flawed; but it is still a masterpiece from a master writer at the top of his form.

Murphy's themes have cosmic relevance, his pen drawing them expertly into the strictures and forms of domestic tragedy. And in his new play he examines the blinding destruction of the human spirit when peace of mind is seen as a product to be bought with power, in this case the power of land.

It's searingly Irish in its damnation of emotional repression; but it is, in fact, a version of a Russian novel from the 1870s by the satirist Mikhail Saltykov, who wrote under the name Schedrin. And its prescience is extraordinary: we could be on the brink of the Revolution (in fact, the production is costumed that way) and the presentation would not have been faulted by Lunacharsky in his exposition of Lenin's "socialist realism".

The reluctant tyrant is Arina, the servant girl from the mountains who married the master, and saved his disintegrating family and fortunes with her rigid, unyielding single-mindedness of purpose. Now she is Lear, old and tired, and wants to lay down her burdens. Why not? She has three sons, and only the youngest refuses to do her bidding and declare love and duty.

Condemned to live like a rat in the stables, he soon dies, leaving his brothers to inherit his share. Paul is silent and ineffectual, and gets only the minor part of the estate; Peter, former student for the priesthood, oiling his way through life with ugly platitudes about intellect serving the righteous only if it leads the way to holiness, is the winner, but in the way of things is not to be satisfied.

Dispossessed and humiliated by her son's greed and brutality, Arina must live on the poor bounty of her "illegitimate" granddaughters on their inheritance of a barren small farm, while the girls try their fortunes in the city (with inevitable results). And Peter, the son of duty, dons his mother's obdurately greedy cloak, but is ultimately destroyed by his own venal hypocrisy.

In his dying ravings, his brother Paul has observed that "when they lose their sense of awe, people turn to property and religion". Peter's sense of awe is encompassed by "appearances", which involve the removal and hiding of the illegitimate son he has fathered on one of his mother's maids before he turns to the seduction of his own niece.

The estate and its inhabitants reek: and over all stands the ultimately tragic figure of Arina, raging witness to what she has brought about. And of course the play has quite extraordinary resonances for Ireland in 2009, as we stand like Arina, refusing to accept that in our iron-fisted greed we have brought about our own ruin. Those in charge are not our masters but our servants, and have merely done our bidding.

The theme is monumental and extraordinary, the language superb, the drawing of the various characters masterly. But there is a major problem with the casting of Marie Mullen as Arina: she struts and storms, prances and scowls. There is no sense of an emotional life ruthlessly repressed, and instead of presenting a tragic shell of a woman, Mullen offers an empty performance: a very different matter. And the emptiness of her performance unfortunately makes the epilogue of Arina's apologia seem superfluous to the play's structure.

And while Tom Piper's set design looks superb, and serves what seems to be a nod to Brechtian style very well, director Conall Morrison's determination to make everything large scale loses what should be the definition of a suffocatingly small family tragedy. The horrifying seq-uence of personal destruction closing in is more of a scatter bomb than a slow entombment. As a result, the whole does not match its parts in production, despite truly magnificent performances from Declan Conlon and Frank McCusker as Paul and Peter.

In the support roles, Eva Bartley as the used servant Vera, Barry Barnes as the land agent and Mick Lally as the steward are particularly impressive, but Janice Byrne has neither the vocal strength nor the emotional presence for the betrayed niece Anna.

* * * * * *

BARRY McKinley's play, Elysium Nevada, is slightly kooky, in a way that would have appealed to the Sixties generation. It probably still will, as that generation is still the one most likely to understand the references to atomic experiments and the inventor of the atom bomb.

Two old men and an old woman sit on the terrace of 'Elysium', a rest home on the edges of the Nevada desert. The two men bitch about ungrateful families and the current boredom of their lives. One of them seems to have had a more interesting life than the other, since he actually worked at the atomic test centre, and once served lunch to "Mr Oppenheimer himself". The woman sleeps in her wheelchair. But then a sandstorm changes everything and we are left wondering if more than the ghosts of the atomic age inhabit the desert air. This is a place where strange things can happen to both mind and body.

McKinley handles his quirky scenario with intelligent humour, and his ear for dialogue and idiom is sharp and acute, and only occasionally cynical.

Elysium Nevada is at Bewley's lunchtime theatre on Dublin's Grafton Street, directed more than competently by Terry Byrne, with three good and convincing performances from Ian Blackmore, Ann Russell and Steve Curran (especially the latter).

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