|Photo by Wendy McDougal|
O'Punsky's Theatre presents THE SEAFARER by Conor McPherson at the Darlinghurst Theatre.
Conor McPherson is an Irish writer who is regarded as "...quite possibly the finest of his generation" (Ben Brantley- New York Times). The Sydney season, this year, has also given us Enda Walsh and his exceptional THE NEW ELECTRIC BALLROOM, and, what with Mark O'Rowe and his TERMINUS last year, and, further back still, Martin McDonagh, pulsing vividly in our memory in regular Sydney theatre outings, one begins to wonder just why does this country, Ireland, throw up such impressive writers for the theatre (Martin McDonagh being English/Irish, of course).
THE SEAFARER (2006) follows on from another prize winning play, THE WEIR (1999) - seen earlier this year at the New Theatre, and SHINING CITY (2004), and Mr McPherson, just 41 years of age, has a record that would be envy making for any playwright. THE SEAFARER, is set in a grim living area of a house in Baldoyle in Dublin, a room with no woman to touch its care, it has morphed into a kind of bar in appearance. The designed setting of this production by Amanda McNamara is a wonderfully detailed vision of distress and decay. The atmosphere garnered with the lighting design of Tony Youlden and supported with another detailed sound design by Nate Edmondson (see, THE HIGHWAY CROSSING) is truly disgusting in its realities. There is something rotting in this world.
The play begins in more or less darkness and Sharky (Patrick Dickson), a shambles, facially injured with a tough life etched all over him, attempting to give up the alcohol -2 days in - stumbles down a staircase, past a framed picture of the Sacred Heart (of Jesus), pausing to tap a red light, a light of remembrance, that has gone out, it flickers for a few seconds only, and once again extinguishes. He falls over the passed out, "stinking" body of his brother, Richard (Maeliosa Stafford), recently blinded in a drunken episode with a fall in "a skip", who wakes to the fierce need of another drink. They are joined by Ivan (Patrick Connolly), from the spare room, who has stayed the night, a drunken refugee from his family, visibly shaking with delirium tremors of alcoholic addiction. It is Christmas Eve and a list of shopping for the festive season is drawn up: Harp, four six packs, Stout, three bottles of Paddy Powers whiskey, and bottles of Miller and, as afterthought, a turkey. It is good that they have done so, for later that night, Nicky (John O'Hare), arrives with a friend, Mr Lockhart (William Zappa) - he, with a bottle of superior whiskey - although, there is a bottle of illegally distilled 'poteen' as well, at hand: Brigid Blake's famous Antrim poteen. This collection of 'pickled' debris, of men, are charged through the night, with cards and drunken, haranguing forays into the neighbourhood, bashing violently "the fucking winos” with golf sticks and all. Cards for euros, and, we discover, for a soul, as well.
The writing is wry and meticulously realistic and the acting required is one of slow and accurate revelations, both physical and psychic.
Mr Connolly, as Ivan, is a charming, though frightening, wreck of humanity, especially impressive in his carefully constructed creation - his Ivan, a wonderfully calibrated object of myopic self-destruction and pure Irish pathos. Mr O'Hare, too, especially, in his blustery opening scenes, gold necklace, sunglasses-on-head and all, an aging spiv 'seeding' before ultimate decay. On the other hand, Mr Stafford, having a duel role here as the blind Richard, the central role of a man with a sense of an over powering, self willed oblivion, and that of director of the play, is less impressive, for, despite his characterisation details, he appears to be slightly out of synchronization with the give and take of the other actors on stage. He needs a director's third eye to help place him into the reality of what is happening, technically, around him. It is sometimes as if he is in another production. That he has played this role before, at the Abbey Theatre, is no surprise, then, and there is a sense that he is in both, now. In his program note, Mr Stafford confesses "Directing from the inside is not something I attempt to do often, nor would I recommend it." Sage advice , it seems, whatever clues, guidance, he was given by his assistant director, Jacobie Gray, for, although, the characterisation is safe and clear, if not entirely embraced, it is the music of the text that he fails to orchestrate for himself, with the other actors; he appears to be not listening accurately to the others, and so the production flounders, ever so slightly, with a lack of confident rhythmic tempo, even, sometimes, musical note hearing, and, in such a crucially central role, as Richard, it disconnects the even flow of the story telling.
The incredible part of the writing by Mr McPherson is the skill that he has, in taking us, effortlessly, from the deeply disturbing ugliness of this real world in Dublin, and gradually escalating us into the heightened 'metaphysics' of the super religious, of devil and souls, as we become acquainted with the possibly true relationship of Sharky and Mr Lockhart, the man with the look of a businessman and bon viveur, and back again, to the ruined day-to-night world of these sad men. This card game is not just for money but for something much greater. The play for a soul with the devil. Or is it? On this Christmas eve with a scrawny artificial Christmas tree haunting the room and the broken homage to the sacred heart of Jesus Christ hovering over the action, is it just the power of the poteen, a possible hallucinogenic effect of illegal alcohol, on Sharky, a man desperately attempting to break from the cycle of alcoholic abuse, and plagued with guilt, that we are witnessing? Just an hallucination? An Intriguing work, then.
The ordinary language and conversation of the characters are totally believable. The world of these men, this ruined world, this culture, can be smelt with the ears. Later, when it moves into the metaphysical the prose/poetry is captivating:
What's Hell? (He laughs a little laugh.) Hell is ... (He stares gloomily.) Well, you know, Sharky, when you're walking round and round the city and the street lights have all come on and it's cold. Or you're standing outside a shop where you were hanging around reading the magazines, pretending to buy one 'cause you've no money and nowhere to go and your feet are like blocks of ice in those stupid little slip-on shoes you bought for chauffeuring. And you see all the people who live in another world all snuggled up together in the warmth of a tavern or a cosy little house, and you just walk and walk and walk and you're on your own and nobody knows who you are. And you don't know anyone and you're trying not to hassle people or beg, because you're trying not to drink, and you're hoping you won't meet anyone you know because of the blistering shame that rises up in your face and you have to turn away because you know you can't deal with the thought that someone might love you, because of all the pain you cause.
Well, that's a fraction of the self-loathing you feel in hell, except it's worse. …It is this use of language in its expression of cultural grief for his fellow Irishmen, that is painfully, brilliantly gifted to us. It all appears so seamlessly connected, and that is the wonder of Mr McPherson's play. Mr Dickson as Sharky creates a delicate fragility of a man who is facing the decision to sink or swim. He is a seafarer. It is done, by Mr Dickson, with careful and understated accuracy, as he has his Sharky stand with one foot in the world of the lost, blind Richard, who has drunk himself "on to the next shelf in the basement", and, the other in the 'reality' of the metaphysic fallen 'angel', Mr Lockhart. At the end, when the sunlight struggles into the room in the new day, Christmas Day, and Sharky unfolds the Christmas card from a woman called Miriam, listening to the music of "Sweet Little Mystery", her gift, we all hope for a rescue into a future that is reflective of Mr Lockhart's vision of Heaven : "Not so much a tune as a heartbreakingly beautiful vibration in the sunlight shining down on and through all the souls." Mr Dickson has taken us there, to the possibility of a salvation.
Mr Zappa, well-dressed and confidently affluent, appears like the Inspector in the Priestly play, AN INSPECTOR CALLS, both of this world and otherwise, eerie and uncanny in this environment of corruption. The physical manifestations of Mr Lockhart in the private interviews with Sharky are deftly insidious and gently logical in their progression (aided by the lighting and sound) by Mr Zappa. The performance is a gentle act of courage and cheekiness, what one expects from all good actors - gentle, can be operative, according to need. Mr Zappa has, as usual, impecable judgement. It works superbly.
O’Punsky's Theatre is an actor's collective founded twenty odd years ago. They have presented, as younger men, work that was inspired by playwrights reflecting their own life journeys and issues. Among others, OBSERVE THE SONS OF ULSTER MARCHING TO THE SOMME by Frank McGuinness; THE SLAB BOYS by John Bryne; THE FAITH HEALER by Brian Friel; and THE GIGLI CONCERT by Tom Murphy. Now, to quote them, "As we have aged and grown so have the characters and the predicaments of the plays we have produced. ... Now, in our fifties and beyond, our own relationships and characters have deepened and THE SEAFARER fits us like a glove." The ambition of the company and the quality of this performance reflects a magnificent commitment to the power of the theatre.
Today, Sunday, on my bus to Bondi Junction at 8.30 in the morning, two young Irish men/boys, stinking of drink and tobacco from the night before, dressed in board shorts and t-shirts, despite the cold, each with a half drunk bottle of beer in their hands and the loud, impenetrable brogue on their lips, unaware of their circumstances, brought the tragedy of this play to sad, sad life. Seafarers, both, wrecks on the seas of alcohol, in the present day Irish diaspora.
Do catch Mr McPherson's play, if you can.