Waiting For Elvis

Two strange friends wait for the return of the King until kingdom come

Fri, Apr 5, 2013, 15:30

Waiting For Elvis
Axis, Ballymun, Dublin
****

A park bench. A tree. Evening. Two figures on the margins of society await one endlessly delayed arrival. In Eileen Gibbons’s engaging and delicately wrought play, the odds that the King, Elvis Presley, will keep this appointment are only slightly better than those of Godot showing up. At least innocent newcomer Elizabeth (Gillian McCarthy) seems dimly aware of one inconvenience: his death (“It was on the news”). But Lisa Marie (Anne Kent), a true believer, weathered and terse by her long vigil, has the power of conviction: “It’s all part of his plan.”

It takes a deft hand to invite comparisons to Samuel Beckett’s masterpiece without becoming either a cowering homage or a giggling parody. But Gibbons’s play, first staged in 2008 and here reworked with Axis director Mark O’Brien, has such unshowy intelligence, light comic touch and sensitivity to character detail that it doesn’t stay in anyone’s shadow. You could say it is a play in which nothing happens several times, but that’s because everything happens just beneath the surface, where a story is revealed in human details.

The setting, as Marie Tierney’s sparing set recognises, is almost placeless but here given enough concrete clues to make it a new Dublin housing project. That provides the characters with some context, making the play’s absurdity feel shrewdly grounded: both comedy and delusions are attached to something real. Kent’s Elvis worshipper is bedraggled and cagey, regarding strangers with seasoned distrust. McCarthy is irrepressibly childlike, so naive, fidgety and literal minded that it resembles a disorder. The production takes their shared delusion quite seriously – which makes it funny without being nasty – yet O’Brien lets us perceive the edge of severe reality around them.

That creates a clever tension as Gibbons remains slyly aware of how outlandish concepts connect to the mundane. Elizabeth compares the overwhelming burden of Elvis’s fame to an acquaintance renowned for oversized feet, while Lisa Marie recalls quitting her cleaning job by leaving the building and never going back – “just like Elvis did”.

There’s an automatic urge to protect these guileless characters and the bubble of their illusion. Gibbons expertly prods Lisa Marie’s identity without fully exposing it, just as Elizabeth’s complete lack of self-awareness cushions her from innumerable humiliations. It keeps everything on the knife-edge of tragicomedy.

That may be why O’Brien and the cast pull back from playing one rift as something violently calamitous, which might have varied the palette, but it’s also why McCarthy’s honest response to the sombre question, “How did she die?”, makes for one of the most hilarious exchanges of the year.

Arch and subtly insightful, it’s an elegant depiction of unwavering companionship against a harsher world. Like Godot or fresh Elvis sightings, such friendships don’t come along very often.
Until April 13th