Tuesday 18 December 2018

Intensely sexual allegory of political destruction

THEATRE

EMER O'KELLY

A Taoiseach is on the way out. It may be that death approaches, possibly by his own hand. Or possibly it may be merely political death, as the devious and ambitious Chief Whip crouches in the wings muttering that he "has the numbers". Either way, the Taoiseach is under pressure.

A familiar theme, to be dealt with by means of a familiar genre, perhaps thriller, perhaps satire, perhaps melodrama. But this is Tom MacIntyre's new play, and he prefers always to keep a sense of play in his work. He plays with words, he plays with situations, he plays with history, and he plays savagely with his country's failings and failures.

MacIntyre inhabits a magical world where it's possible to right wrongs if you have faith and courage. But he then transfers it to the real world, where such moral alchemy is far more difficult.

In Only an Apple, at the Peacock theatre, the failing Taoiseach is beset by spirits, at first unwelcome, and then seeming to be a heaven-sent weapon against his rival. Because succubi are always female, ("perambulating vulvas", as one of them describes herself), and the female carries the apple of temptation just as she coils the serpent of betrayal around her.

The image is biblical, the personification transferred to an Ireland broken on the wheel of politics.

The Taoiseach is obsessed with his legacy: he wants his place in history, and the spirits he conjures up are those of Grace O'Malley, the pirate queen; and Queen Elizabeth I, aka Gloriana. Their separate legacies echo through the pages of Irish history, as the Taoiseach wants his own to echo.

There are already women in his life, a wife on a pedestal and otherwise ignored, a mistress who withdraws her favours at the crack of a whip. But the two ghostly queens are willing if querulous bedfellows. And as they eat away at what few certainties remain, it dawns on the Taoiseach that they can as easily consume his rival if only he can coax them into the other man's bed.

The surreal comedy is as disturbing as it is stealthy, but the tragedy is howling in the wings, perhaps because the Taoiseach has been "howling for us for a decade" as Grace tells him, and only permits the avenging spirits into his increasingly paranoid consciousness as death becomes inevitable.

Only an Apple is a remarkable play, differing considerably in performance on the first night from the published text, and all the better for the alterations and editing.

Selina Cartmell's visual imagery in direction makes a perfect partner for MacIntyre's intensely sexual allegory of political destruction.

The cast square up magnificently to the demands of author and director Don Wycherly as the haunted Taoiseach, with Cathy Belton and Fiona Bell as Grace and Elizabeth respectively. Michael McElhatton and Marty Rea play the quite inspired creations of two self-serving aides, and Malcolm Adams, Steve Blount and Tina Kelleher complete the wonderfully impressive ensemble.

Dick Bird and Niamh Lunny are the design team, lighting is by Matthew Richardson, with music by Conor Linehan and choreography by Ella Clarke.

Life after Love is billed as "the rough guide to men, make-up and parenthood for the middle-aged, menopausal divorcee". Cue a sinking heart: another Shirley Valentine sound-alike which, despite the accolades that piece received from most middle-aged, menopausal women, was in my opinion neither funny nor life-enhancing in the first place. But then, I've never been able to feel like an aggrieved martyr about having been born a woman. I like it.

And so does Billie Traynor, the author and performer in this quirky little piece at Bewley's lunchtime café theatre.

Daisy Magill is back in the dating (and hopefully mating) game after divorce. And with son Alan conveniently in the US on a university soccer scholarship, Daisy joins a dating agency, and regales her audience with some of the disasters she suffers, including spilling red wine all over an entirely possible flame. (Been there, done that, stone-cold sober, and quite recently, although not over a blind date from an agency. And come to think of it, he hasn't been in touch since.)

The nice ones back off, Daisy finds, although she is a bit selective, holding up someone in his 70s to total ridicule for being as anxious as she is herself to find a suitable object of desire.

Traynor's script has genuine wit and a fair modicum of wisdom, and she performs with immaculate timing.

The piece is part cabaret, however, and despite the relish with which she inter- sperses tunes like Is That All There Is? and Nobody Loves a Fairy when she's Forty, they break the genuinely clever narrative.

Excellent direction comes from Alan Stanford, and musical direction (equally good, if dramatically superfluous) is by Declan Staunton.

Today's news headlines, directly to your inbox every morning.

Also in this section