Barry O'Connor and Janice Byrne in Noteworthy
TheatreUpstairs, Dublin ***Written words are supposed to have real meaning, whether they belong to literature, religious scripture, or a suicide note. But what happens, Róisín Coyle’s short drama wonders, if they turn out to be pure fiction?
When Janice Byrne’s frantic Louise burns her brother’s suicide note, it initially seems like an act of catharsis. As she tells her incredulous sister Nicola (Niamh McCann), their mother had been reading it compulsively, as though it might eventually yield answers.
Nicola, though, believes in the succour of rituals: “This letter was the only thing keeping her going.” The same might be said of Coyle’s play, which fixates so stolidly on the letter and its significance, it brings little else into consideration. So little happens on its surface, in fact, that it begs to be read as an allegory.
Played out in lumbering real time, where a kitchen clock counts away the minutes on Martin Cahill’s surprisingly complete set, it takes several minutes of circuitous dialogue (“I told you it wasn’t toast”) before Nicola is up to speed with the audience, and a good few more before things get interesting: the letter was a fake, written by Louise to fill the void.
As Liam, their dead brother, Barry O’Connor makes an intriguing presence, reading the counterfeit note in deadpan voiceover, but Coyle doesn’t exploit the device; he’s essentially a fiction written by his sisters.
The play is far more interesting (and occupied) in deeper allusions. The note was uncharacteristically signed “your angel, Liam”, and the sisters resign to write a second, clearer suicide note, like scribes behind a new testament. For all the dark comedy of its implausibility, that combination of religious scepticism and creative writing becomes more satisfyingly subversive. “People can be easily convinced of what they want to believe,” says Louise.
But people also require more persuasive detail. Neither Coyle’s meandering script nor debut director Janet Moran’s uneven pacing allow the sisters to develop, and tellingly they seem unable to flesh out their own brother (a moper who generally laughed things off), or the circumstances behind his suicide. That may be its nota bene: there is no reasonable explanation for suicide, the most dreadful of irrational acts. It’s not difficult to see that as a broader metaphor for a time short of authority, either religious or political, with few reassuring fictions and many more hard truths.