WITH THE martini-dry wit that befits a 1950s staff writer at the New Yorker, Maeve Brennan saw the end coming. “She died,” reports Catherine Walker’s elegant sylph, alone and wreathed in cigarette smoke. “She shot herself in the back with the aid of a small hand-mirror.” Brennan’s dark fantasy, written during her years of writer’s block, invites a sadder reflection: a brilliant and independent spirit, she died in obscurity following years of psychological disarray.
Concentrating on a decade in Brennan’s life in New York, with flashbacks to her Dublin childhood, Emma Donoghue’s biographical drama for Hatch Theatre Company, Landmark Productions and Dublin Theatre Festival honours Brennan’s verve, the haunted elegance of her prose and the agitated circumstances of its creation, all of which Walker beautifully combines. Like Brennan, though, it has two sides that it cannot easily reconcile, tugged between locations, between truth and fiction.
“I suppose writers have two lives,” observes her famously neurotic and fastidious editor, William Shawn (Lorcan Cranitch), “in themselves and in their work.” Director Annabelle Comyn is intent to show us both: Brennan’s exterior life, sexually and professionally confident among the hard-drinking Algonquin set, and the interior life of her Dublin memories and creations, which fascinate Donoghue more.
That may be why 1950s New York seems mildly unreal, measured out in constant zingers, debates on punctuation and sexual suggestion, while parties erupt in composer Philip Stewart’s engaging jazz shuffles and mambo parps. In a neat allusion to the toll of such excess, Peter O’Brien’s costumes gradually shed their embellishments and Paul O’Mahony’s set becomes ever more strewn with detritus: discarded pages or the confetti that marks her turbulent marriage to writer St Clair McKelway (a fine performance from Owen McDonnell). Appearing at regular intervals, her childhood home in Dublin, in which Michele Forbes and Barry Barnes perform the passive-aggressive routine of a stagnant marriage, seems conversely prosaic and over-deterministic. Such couples appear frequently in Brennan’s short stories, but without the embrace of her prose they have no room to breathe.
This is one of the difficulties with depicting the act of writing onstage. “Don’t leave me trapped here with this f**king sentence,” says Maeve at one point, highlighting an otherwise inconspicuous struggle. Comyn occasionally uses dance to broaden her stage dynamic, but Donoghue largely locates her drama in Brennan’s writing, from inspiration to composition, from prolonged block to retrieving her voice. A difficult process to abstract, it is portrayed best in Walker’s exchanges with Cranitch, who makes Shawn a pseudo father figure, both champion and tyrant.
In one subtle gesture that will delight Brennan fans, but may barely register for the uninitiated, certain episodes of New York living described by her magazine alter-ego, the Long-Winded Lady, begin to materialise around Walker, as though Brennan’s two lives had neatly fused together. With that celebratory spirit, the play chooses to leave her in the mid-1960s, healthier and writing again. It’s a glib resolution, yet a soft acknowledgement of a more complicated truth.
Brennan’s was a fascinating story; it only lacked a fitting conclusion.
Until October 20th
– Peter Crawley