Abbey Theatre, Dublin ***
Frank McGuinness is shrewd with his words. His new play for the Abbey, coming at the end of a year breathless with James Joyce adaptations, is “a dramatisation” of The Dead, an exquisitely elegiac story that, on its surface, contains very little drama at all. It also generously acknowledges some stubborn issues of transposing Joyce from page to stage.
In Joyce’s story, for instance, the third-person narration famously changes colour, like a chameleon, when rubbing against different characters: “Lily, the caretaker’s daughter, was literally run off her feet.” Here it finds a blunter first-person equivalent. Lily: “I am literally run off my feet.” More encouragingly, though, as Charlotte McCurry races across an almost bare set, following a musical opening and flanked by dancers, Lily is theatrically run off her feet.
At first, it looks as though McGuinness and director Joe Dowling have gone further, and turned the novella into an operetta, using songs by Thomas Moore and others, relying on choreographer David Bolger’s skills, employing a swirling company of performers and introducing the home of the elderly Morkan sisters (Anita Reeves and Ingrid Craigie) with a bustle of music and motion.
On the Feast of the Epiphany, in Dublin 1904, both the beaming guests and the components of Riccardo Hernandez’s diaphanous set descend briskly on the house, like layers of falling snow. Beautiful as this is to look at, the production struggles to get beneath the surface. The fidgeting faux pas of Stanley Townsend’s otherwise composed Gabriel Conroy barely register, missing an essential vulnerability. Fiona Bell better conveys the bristling nationalism of Molly Ivors, even mid set dance, while McGuinness emphasises, in terms that seem potent both then and now, the shadow of famine behind the feast: “Let none of us go hungry in this house or in Ireland tonight.”
Why, then, does the production seem less substantial? One reason is that few performers can combine comedy and deep characterisation as well as Rosaleen Linehan, whose inanely badgering Mrs Malins is – forgive the cliche – worth the price of admission alone, and expertly matched by Lorcan Cranitch as her reprobate son Freddie. Reeves is also strong, which is to say compellingly fragile, as the “haggard” aunt Julia poignantly singing Arrayed for the Bridal. But elsewhere most characters seem like mechanical figures of forced frivolity so that it’s hard to tell where performance begins and party pieces end.
Sadly, that bleeds into The Dead’s central relationship between Townsend’s Gabriel and Derbhle Crotty as his wife Gretta, whose life and love, he learns, has been more complicated than he ever imagined. In Joyce, this is an epiphany, sad but not despairing, while snow falls “faintly through the universe”. On stage, Dowling treats it like a ramping crescendo, Townsend declaiming first to his sleeping wife, then to the audience, like a wounded orator.
There is considerable more lilt to one hypnotising effect of Malcolm Rippeth’s lights, and it is – literally – inspired. “Have you ever seen snow like it?” someone asks. No, never, is the only answer, and there the story seems beautifully transformed without having to make a drama out of it.
Until January 19th