REVIEWED: The Seafarerat the Abbey; Dullea, Smith String Quartet at TCD and Lightning Strikes as part of the Gay Theatre Festival at the Project Arts Centre

The Seafarer,Abbey Theatre, Dublin


In the devilish showdown of Conor McPherson's The Seafarer, one character is coerced into a game of cards with Satan himself. Throwing his soul into the pot, he risks trading his life, his home and his responsibilities for the unbearable confinement, creeping time and ceaseless torment of hell.

Honestly, though, it doesn't sound that different.

Against a distressingly grimy living room in Baldoyle, where, on Paul O'Mahony's realistic set, even the electric candle of a Sacred Heart of Jesus portrait has given up the ghost, McPherson's play already evokes a world of lost souls. Strewn with crumpled beer cans, drained whiskey bottles and desultory Christmas decorations that seem like miserable little jokes, this hell is not other people, but a self-made den of drink and despair.

Here, the self-flagellating, recently dry Sharky (Liam Carney) has returned to care for his obstreperous, recently-blinded brother Richard (Maelíosa Stafford), whose near-absurd level of drinking is matched only by Ivan's (Don Wycherley), his feckless, farcically myopic friend.

There is so much desperate comedy in these early scenes, with Wycherley's masterful performance eliciting as many laughs and gasps as he butters toast through his DTs, that there is little room for much else. Until the diabolic intervention, when George Costigan's sinisterly dapper Mr Lockhart arrives with Sharky's rival Nicky (Phelim Drew), bringing with him the accompanying support of mythic framework, McPherson seems otherwise invested in establishing characters while discreetly claiming his lineage within Irish drama.

The boozy bonhomie and outlandish anecdotes could come straight from Synge; the voices of old Dublin often hearken back to O'Casey; and the tramps that lurk outside the door, or the master-slave relationship between brothers, forcibly recall Beckett. With added allusions to the myth of Wicklow's Hell Fire Club and the spiritually fortifying Anglo-Saxon poem, The Seafarer, McPherson invites myriad associations to prop up what is, essentially, a simple morality tale.

In Jimmy Fay's assured, reverential production - which, nearly two years after it opened in London, marks the play's Irish premiere - Carney takes Sharky's "scrunched up face" as his character note, collapsing his body into hollows of guilt and shame.

They are all sinners though; details of their crimes and infidelities are dealt out over every hand of cards. Even Lockhart, who Costigan plays with dark charm and gravity, is a self-loathing creature, shrinking from the harmony of music and funnelling his ageless bitterness ("Amn't I worth saving?") into the sadism of his game.

Ultimately, though, trading tragic momentum for crowd-pleasing catharsis, McPherson is more interested in redemption than damnation. Stafford sneers the line, "I believe in Sharky. I believe he can change" with such scorn that you wonder, at times, which character is the devil. But the play believes it. It may take a forehead-smacking twist to bring this around (I mean, seriously. . .) yet there is genuine uplift in the message: that even in the bleakest of situations, wherever there is life, there is the possibility of salvation. It takes a while to get there, but, like this long-awaited production, better late than never.

Until June 7, then touring to Town Hall Theatre Galway (June 10-14), Cork Opera House (June 17-21) and An Grianán, Letterkenny (June 24-28).

Dullea, Smith String Quartet at the Printing House, TCD


Kevin Volans White Man Sleeps; Nancarrow Quartet No 1; Thomas Adès Piano Quintet.

Thomas Adès's 2001 Piano Quintet is a work haunted by the past.

Well, it's more than haunted, actually. It sounds as if it has the resonances of old gestures folded through it, with consequences that can be as unpredictable as the plausible illogic of the world of dreams. You could think of it as a kind of extension of the fantastical explorations of late Ligeti, except that Adès here often works with sounds that are a lot dirtier than Ligeti's, and he ranges much more freely and widely, too. His play with colliding worlds was well captured by pianist Mary Dullea and the members of the Smith String Quartet in this New Sound Worlds concert at the Printing House in TCD.

The other two offerings came off rather less well. Kevin Volans's fascinatingly textured string quartet, White Man Sleeps, was given with a kind of conveyor belt efficiency, rigorous in movement, while at the same time allowing key balances between the voices to seem badly chosen.

Conlon Nancarrow's First String Quartet (1945) was written all of four decades earlier, and pre-dates the composer's decision to pursue his exploration of complex rhythmic overlays through the unorthodox medium of the player piano. The Smith's performance was lacking in both sharpness and cogency.

Gay Theatre Festival: Lightning Strikesat the Project Arts Centre


For a young, sexually confident gay man strutting around a permissive contemporary London, the protagonist of Matt Ian Kelly's new play has developed an unusually complicated love life.

Tom has fallen for not one, but two much older men. The first is Montgomery Clift, the screen icon who remains his unattainable first love. The second is Jamie (David Ames), a ghostly presence from 1963, who appears only in Tom's dreams. With the help of Tom's narcolepsy, they are soon dating.

Initially, this entertainingly hokey device makes Tony Higgins's Tom an intrigued viewer of the mores of gay life in the early 1960s, watching Jamie and his circle of friends describe a criminalised lifestyle both furtive and heedless; love in the time of cottaging.

Although the play's conceit is called "a sort of Ibsenite wet dream" by tart-tongued confidante Carl (Gregg Smith), the truth is closer to a gay-romance version of Life on Mars. Patrick Wilde's efficient, few-frills production matches this time travelling with fractured styles, where the throwback naturalism of the dialogue is punctuated by jumpy video-projections and mobile phone voice-overs.

Sharply written and engagingly performed, Kelly's play grants his jaded youth access to a secret cultural history, but the experiences of Tom and Jamie prove almost incommunicable. Jamie is awed by new slang and technology, Tom unable to fathom a world "pre-gaydar". The same isn't true of Kelly - he certainly captures the voice of the 1960s as smoothly as his contemporary dialogue - but he skirts around the oppressiveness of the past.

Ultimately, Kelly favours symmetry between our trans-temporal lovers, stressing their parallels rather than accentuating differences. The resolution may then seem unnecessarily abrupt, but it is offset by a production with warm exhortations to live in the now.

Until tomorrow. Festival runs until May 18.