Abbey Theatre, Dublin
“Is Tommy gone too,” Christy asks early in Tom Murphy’s brilliant anatomy of exile. “There’ll soon be no one left.” Like so much else in this careful, clear-sighted play from 2000, the exchange is full of the pleasantries of Irish emigrants returning for the summer holidays (“As usual!”) but mingled with solemn reports of the recently deceased. The unseen Tommy has only emigrated, but to those returning to the thinning smiles and folded arms of 1950s Galway, it can be hard to tell the difference.
Without forcing the point or labouring the play’s keen relevance, director Annabelle Comyn’s perceptive and beautifully-pitched revival for the Abbey delivers competing visions of Ireland – its sentimentalised memory and its riven reality. The plot is thick with a drama of dispossession, longing and sexual tension, but it’s the friction between those visions that gives the production its nervy hum.
With muddled accents and fistfuls of mixed currencies, the returnees swear they would die for a country that can no longer accommodate them. And although they dodge Mass with black humour, they are goaded by its fantasy of an unchanging Ireland with deep roots to sustain its distant branches. The reality, seeping out in the apologetic boasts of Frank Laverty’s returned labourer Peter, the American affectations of Karl Shiels’s wisecracking Goldfish, or the cosy insincerity of Darragh Kelly’s welcoming publican Bunty, is one of placelessness. They are neither here nor there.
Paul O’Mahony puts that tension into his fascinating set, shifting its locations with two unfussy turntables, using a severity of colour to keep nostalgia at bay and stretching pastoral photographs across a cyclorama so their details distend – like a memory. It underlines the play’s diasporic limbo: home is not an ever-fixed mark, change is inexorable, resistance is tragic.
Playing against type, Declan Conlon’s Christy, a self-made man of dubious means, plans to buy the grand house of the De Burca’s, which he considers home. This is not so much to save Eleanor Methven’s kindly, convalescing matriarch, Cathy Belton’s beautiful, stiffly protected Marie, Niamh McCann’s flirtatious Louise or Catherine Walker’s languid Susanne, but an attempt to freeze time.
Comyn is attuned to the anxiety beneath the surface of everything from sexual entanglements to sentimental songs, and even among an expectedly adept ensemble, such attention elicits superb performances.
With a stately, absorbing pace (a lesser production would lose its nerve over the play’s length), that consideration allows Methven room to explore the depth of her character and circumstance (how she simultaneously consoles and admonishes McCann’s beaten Louise is quite masterful). It gives Lorcan Cranitch the space to bring his sharp solicitor Kerrigan from the play’s wry conscience to an unwitting hypocrite.
And, in an extraordinary final moment, it lets Conlon and Belton look out on the grounds of the property under lighting designer Chahine Yavroyan’s dying sunset, and for a quietly devastating realisation to settle in. A house has been saved, but nobody will ever be at home.
Runs until July 14th