Tom and Vera
A debt-ridden middle-aged Irish couple plot to rob a bank in Desperate Optimists’ financial crisis revenge fantasy
Samuel Beckett Theatre
A frustrated, debt-ridden, middle-aged Irish couple plot to rob a bank. It’s a premise worthy of a comic caper movie, but this torpid new piece from Desperate Optimists really wonders whether two ordinary lives facing a distressingly common crisis might aspire to the condition of a genre piece, myth, melodrama or opera, without ever deciding on any of them.
The lights rise as slow as daybreak over a patch of woodland while the overture to Wagner’s Tristan und Isolde gently surges. Designed by Dominique Brennan, the forest is both realistic in detail and contentedly fake in presentation; its trees are rooted in autumn, but the space is lined with the paraphernalia of a film set. A fox stands nearby, stiff as a museum exhibition.
This should all seem jarringly absurd, but the tone is established as one of grand solemnity. So much so, in fact, that when Alan Howley’s Tom and Caitríona Ní Mhurchú’s Vera arrive to engage in hackneyed plot devices (“Careful, it’s loaded,” Howley warns of an unearthed gun), or reel out exposition to the attentive Mr Fox (“We’ve lost our jobs, the house, our pensions”) or outline their plan of action with heavy metatheatrical reference to their “characters”, “rehearsal” and “the script”, it still asks to be taken seriously.
Such financial crisis revenge fantasies may strike a chord with an audience, but given their prevalence in other media, it’s a minor chord: breaking mediocre. Both the dialogue and the heist plans are (deliberately) formulaic. Of their “characters”, 70-year-old versions of themselves in theatrical wigs, Ní Mhurchú insists, “They are the opposite of complacent.” That wishful thinking appears to be the social criticism of the production, co-written and co-directed by Joe Lawlor and Christine Molloy, who return to the Irish stage after a 12-year exile pursuing film and digital media in the UK. Finding neither a fresh approach towards the medium or the crisis, their only antidote is role-play.
With little else to offer in either analysis or action, Desperate Optimists lean on allusions to Tristan und Isolde – the threat of poison, the realm of daylight – and then, to signal unseen action, deliver the opera’s most famous aria, Liebestod, to shadow the inevitabilities of a heist-gone-wrong. The soprano, Janyce Condon, is terrific, but the show she visits is completely flat, never real enough to be tragic, warm enough to be romantic, deep enough to convey despair, nor witty enough to be any fun. Counting off references while waiting for something – anything – of consequence to happen, you realise, unhappily, that in their bungled pursuit of a “victimless crime”, Tom and Vera have taken us hostage.