A Galway Girl
Bewley’s Cafe Theatre, Dublin
It seems only appropriate that Clare Barrett and Joe Hanley, playing a husband and wife with irreconcilable differences at a time of insoluble marriages, should find very different ways to engage an audience while sharing the same stage. It’s a tribute to this absorbing production of Geraldine Aron’s 1979 play, which charts the early rise and long deep plummet of a relationship dutifully initiated in 1950, that they both command our sympathy; Barrett with the brushed aside ache of someone who would rather not elicit it, Hanley with the unapologetic assumption that you are his confidante.
As Dermot, a whiskey swilling Dubliner fluent in disparagement but unversed in affection, Hanley has a huge challenge: to realise a character who is unloving, abusive and finally corrosively bitter without stranding him beyond comprehension. And Hanley knows that Aron, who lets Dermot dominate the play but withholds his backstory, is not on his side. Take his words of consolation to Barett’s Maisie, following the stillbirth of their first child: “Don’t be whinging. You’re not the first woman in the world to lose a baby.” Hanley, reaching for Barrett’s hands across the kitchen table, makes it a gesture of unsentimental solidarity, and, like his monologues of sharp-witted misanthropy, chin-jutting self-justification or undercooked pub philosophy, he is always startlingly honest, however twisted.
The conceit of Aron’s play is that a husband and wife can speak freely to us, but barely to each other, a sorry disconnection that Eugene O’Brien would brilliantly exploit years later in Eden. Here, though, Aron effortlessly builds up character detail – Dermot’s disdain for anyone dull or his love of a fry, Maisie’s ingrained social hang-ups and emotional insecurity – while subtly agitating against the suffocation of a culture and an institution.
“Isn’t the Catholic Church a great faith,” one pal jokes with Dermot, after he has horribly humiliated Maisie, “the way it stops our wives from leaving us.” (Is it coincidental that Aron would go on to write My Beautiful Divorce?) As Hanley and Barrett move, with graceful command, through advancing years, director Terry Byrne allows the aura of marital imprisonment, just as Kate Moylan’s economical set stretches the drab kitchen lino into the shape of a doorway, but relies on Barrett’s great warmth to leaven the tragedy. This she does in the simplest gestures, hugging a warm teacup to her chest, for instance, while Hanley remains hunched but spryly expressive. In its final stage the show loses some nerve, suggesting, with one lingering, bittersweet glance, an unbending affection. In the intelligence and generosity of two acutely sensitive performances, we know that such bonds might be the biggest tragedy of all.
Runs until May 26th