Culture Shock: The Irish family – proceed with caution
In ‘The Hanging Gardens’, at the Abbey Theatre, Frank McGuinness attempts the highly unusual feat of creating a convincing nuclear family on an Irish stage. Its failure is not entirely surprising
But this grand metaphorical edifice sits on very narrow and shaky ground. The high tone might be sustainable if the Grants worked as a unit. But they don’t. The play’s highlights are all in the sparky relationship between the waspish, overbearing and manipulative Sam and the angry and angular Jane. The second of the play’s five long scenes is played out entirely between the excellent Buggy and Barbara Brennan’s Jane and shows McGuinness at his best: humane and vivid with just the right seasoning of dark comedy and surreal oddness. It feels, in retrospect, as if this is where the play really lies: in this tangled, exasperated but enduring relationship.
The problem is that it tries to create a larger unit with the three grown-up children. They are sketchily conceived. Charlie, in an angry outburst, refers to himself as the “donkey” and to his siblings as “the whore and the queer”. It is, of course, a set of outrageous caricatures, but the characters themselves do not extend as far beyond them as they should. There is too little telling detail in the writing even for actors as talented as Cathy Belton, Declan Conlon and Marty Rea to build on.
The play is, moreover, unable to imagine the relationships of each of the three with their parents. This is true even in the most basic, spatial sense. How do these people occupy the same space? The answer is very awkwardly indeed. The typical scene is an encounter between one of the parents (usually Sam) and one of the children, with one of the others hovering conveniently at the back of the stage. Entrances are often managed as if this were a radio play and we could not see the action: “Your father’s coming?” “No, it’s Charlie.” Even the structuring of time – the action unfolds in what should be the elegant frame of a single day – becomes strained: the third scene begins just after lunch, but half an hour later it has become “early evening”, and Jane remarks that “there’s still light”.
This kind of discomfort is unusual in a playwright as accomplished as McGuinness. The strain is telling: there is nothing, in the Irish theatre, at all natural about the nuclear family. It is a strange and awkward thing, and playwrights approach it at their peril.