Friday 14 December 2018

Beckettian fantasy with a twinkle in its alien eye

THEATRE

EMER O'KELLY

Waiting outside the Barnstorm Theatre in Kilkenny, I had a conversation with another avid theatre-goer about the dismaying lack of either creativity or imagination in a lot of what passes for "youth theatre", much of it seeming as it does to be a self-absorbed photo of the authors' own lives (frequently a drunken weekend). And what a contrast awaited us inside.

American writer Will Eno loosely fits into the category of "young" or "emerging" writer. He was short-listed for a Pulitzer Prize in 2004 -- and since he didn't win it, it must have been a bloody good year.

Eno's new play, specially written for Gare St Lazare Players Ireland, has its world premiere at the Kilkenny Arts Festival, and will play next year off-Broadway in the Signature Theatre. Title and Deed is a sort of Beckettian fantasy, except that it has a twinkle in its eye. We are faced with a quizzically self-mocking man who stands far outside our ken, philosophically speaking. As he chats inconsequentially, it becomes clear that when he says, "I'm not from here," he means just that.

US visual and written art often seems almost obsessed with worlds beyond our own, and Eno's play belongs loosely in that wildly imaginative genre as well as having a liberal dose of pain, intelligence, and a kind of wild beauty.

When the protagonist begins trying to make us understand his alienation and sense of difference, he speaks of the comfort of things that are familiar and repetitious "like the ocean". And we are carried along on the wave of imagery, to his world in which when babies are born they are given a "birth cloud". Each newborn is carried outside, and has a cloud pointed out to them which becomes their own. Sometimes, there is even a photo taken of it, perhaps by an uncle with a camera.

He helps us to understand why he can't understand our world, marooned in it as he is, not sure, literally, whether he's coming or going. His puzzlement is overwhelming, but trapped though he is in our inadequate metaphysical swamp, he has learned one thing. There have been women; he thinks maybe it was love: and to love and be loved, that is a kind of summit.

Conor Lovett plays the man, directed by Judy Hegarty-Lovett, and the intensity of the partnership leaves you not knowing whether to laugh or cry. But you do leave the theatre knowing that you have seen something very special indeed in its tenderness, and indeed its viciously subversive humour that masquerades as plaintive bewilderment.

*******

Companies formed by actors and directors recently graduated from drama school frequently over-reach themselves. You want to say: "Whoa; curb your ambition until you have a little experience" -- even when there are plenty of signs of talent on display. Pillowtalk is one such company, with the difference that despite a challenging choice of play, it pulls it off with almost eye-blinking competence, intelligence and maturity as well as an impressive display of solid talent.

Fionn O Loingsigh and Sara Joyce play the parts of father and daughter created by Peter Gowen and Norma Sheahan in 2000 in Enda Walsh's Bedbound. At the New Theatre, Dublin, it's a psychotic, suffocating piece (as with so much of Walsh's work) and the two actors work extraordinarily well under Rosemary McKenna's direction.

Maxie is an insane furniture dealer who climbs the first rung of the ladder by dousing his storeroom supervisor with paraffin and burning him to death in a staged accident. All goes cruelly, viciously swimmingly in his rise from warehouseman to tycoon until his little daughter, his pride and joy, contracts polio, and is left with a "shameful" twisted body.

As he slides deeper into insanity, he barricades his wife and daughter in the house, closing in on them further and further with a maze of wooden enclosures until they are left with only a bed space... in which his wife dies, leaving only the maimed life that is his daughter's yearning for light, blue sky, and the beauty of the spoken word.

Joyce and O Loingsigh play this horror with intense, convincing aplomb, showing considerable mastery of Walsh's torrent of repellently seductive language, while McKenna's direction rises and falls fluently with the play's pace. Even the culminating horror, of the father and daughter finding an accommodation as they face death in their stinking prison, has a kind of cathartic persuasiveness.

The only cavil is that the actors are too much of an age with each other; if anything, daughter looks older than father.

Sunday Independent

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