Reviewed today is The Hand at Liberty Hall Theatre

The Hand 

Liberty Hall Theatre

It says much for the literary bias of Irish theatre that few people, asked to name the best living Irish playwrights, would automatically come up with Donal O'Kelly's name. His solo plays Bat the Father, Rabbit the Son and Catalpa, may be among the most invigorating pieces of theatre produced here in the last 20 years. But because the texts are indistinguishable from O'Kelly's own performances, they are barely thought of as plays in their own right.

It would be quite understandable if this were one of the reasons why O'Kelly's new show, The Hand, is so self-consciously arty. Understandable but regrettable, for the visceral directness that made those earlier shows so utterly compelling is badly missed here.

As a text, The Hand has much in common with Bat/Rabbit and Catalpa. The concerns, as before, are with Irish history as experienced by ordinary people, with the intersections of personal and public narratives. The title itself, referring to a place in Donabate, north Dublin, where five roads converge, is an apt metaphor for these concerns.

The style, too, is familiar to O'Kelly's admirers. The words tumble out in Joycean streams of consciousness, full of echoes, soundscapes, alliterations and rhythmic repetitions. The narrative switches from character to character like a marathon relay race.

In this case, the cast of characters centres on a downwardly mobile family in 1920s Dublin. The father, first a Protestant cricketer, then chief cashier with Independent newspapers, dies a shameful death. His Catholic wife and children - and especially his son Hector - are propelled from innocence to experience by the shattering of their cosy world.

There are typically vivid vignettes: Croke Park on All-Ireland Sunday, the village greens of Donabate, a jazz band on the quays, an orphanage, the smoky inferno of a printing plant, a rough battle between strikers and scabs. O'Kelly's ability to evoke people and scenes is undiminished.

The problem is that the text is presented in a way that is at once much more elaborate and much more constrained than before. The stage of the handsome new Liberty Hall theatre is set up as if for a concert, Ellen Cranitch's flute and double bass on one side, Brian Fleming's exotic array of percussion instruments on the other. In the middle, before a bank of microphones, stand O'Kelly and a second performer, Sorcha Fox.

The immediate effect of this is that the playing area is very severely reduced. Robert Ballagh's light and lucid set of granite stonework and railings is made to look small rather than minimalist. There is little room for the manic physical energy and inventiveness that O'Kelly has lavished on his previous texts.

It is not that the three performers added to the old solo format are weak. Sorcha Fox matches O'Kelly's own verbal dexterity and imaginative fluency, which is high praise indeed. Cranitch and Fleming provide a rich score whose excursions around a broadly jazzy idiom are very much in sympathy with O'Kelly's syncopated language.

But the basic idea is misconceived. The narrative is broken up into sections that are presented like songs at a concert. O'Kelly, behaving like the front-man of a band, introduces the sections, which he refers to as tracks, with a band-leader's patter. This, and a long unnecessary interval, achieves nothing excect to interrupt the flow and break the spell.

At the same time, the setting of O'Kelly's text to music does it no great favour. One of the strengths of his previous work was the way he squeezed a musicality out of the words. Adding music to that musicality just makes it excessive, so that the rhythms and repetitions come to seem overly deliberate, even, at times, formulaic.

What's lost is the edgy, high-wire theatricality. If you put Catalpa on radio, you would have lost at least 60 per cent of its impact. With The Hand, you would lose maybe 20 per cent. Which goes to show that there are times when more is less.

Fintan O'Toole

  • The Hand runs until Saturday