Cleft review: An intriguing look at fear, bravery and trauma

Fergal McElherron explores family histories, and life on the margins in his new play

 Simone Kirby, who plays Fea in Cleft

Simone Kirby, who plays Fea in Cleft

 

CLEFT 

O'Donoghue Theatre, NUI Galway
★★★☆☆

“What is the difference between no fear and bravery?” Fergal McElherron’s Cleft explores the liminal spaces that exist within the totalities of life. Directed by Lynne Parker, this intriguing new play is set on the fictional Irish island of Inis Briste. The island’s connection to the mainland is porous, with crossings determined by the tide. In this marginal space, two sisters exhume their past traumas.

Twin sisters Fea (Simone Kirby) and Caireen (Penny Layden) live in the family home. Abandoned by their parents, together they raise Fea’s son, the unusually named Butt Shaft. The sisters live separate but adjacent lives, and in this place the audience witness traumas rising to the surface. This is a world that feels heavy with the weight of the past and it soon becomes clear that Fea’s collection of stones conceals more than just secrets.

McElherron’s script is intentionally slow-paced and his language is graceful and deliberate. Most of the time this decision feels measured and convincing, but at times this two-hander becomes sluggish and slightly unwieldy.

In Cleft, it is the moments of despair and trauma that ring out with enhanced clarity. It is here that McElherron’s emotive and poetic script performs at its best. Fea’s nauseating description of a neighbour losing her eye is one such moment. The audience visibly recoil at this assault of words and McElherron’s script finds its poetic stride in a very disturbing but convincing way.

Similarly, each woman’s own experience of trauma exudes this lucidity. The precision of these moments is achieved through Parker’s focused direction. The distance between Fea and Caireen is maintained by the structure of the production. This has the potential for disaster but is gracefully achieved.

Both Kirby and Layden deliver capable, and at times captivating, performances. However, at certain points, Layden’s Caireen feels slightly overdone and this jars with the subtlety of what McElherron aims to achieve with this production. Kirby’s Fea is unwaveringly remote and her haunted demeanour evokes an uncanny sense of the inevitable as the production moves towards its finish.

Cleft explores the realities of suffering, trauma, and existing in marginal and inhospitable spaces, be they real or imagined. The town whispers follow the sisters throughout their lives and the sound design, by Cameron Macaulay, echoes this whispering with fragments of the past emerging through his soundscape.

This production is a journey through the margins, and it leaves its audience in a borderline space between knowing and not knowing. At the finale, even the inevitable seems unlikely as we are left without a clear resolution.

The production concludes with a single glance. The ending, it seems, is up to us. Fear or bravery, what will it be?

At the Galway International Arts Festival (giaf.ie) until July 27th and at Kilkenny Arts Festival (kilkennyarts.ie) from August 8th – 11th.

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