Conversations After Sex: ★★★★★ for Mark O’Halloran’s extraordinary new play

Dublin Theatre Festival: Kate Stanley Brennan is sublime in Thisispopbaby’s production

CONVERSATIONS AFTER SEX

Space Upstairs, Project Arts Centre, Dublin
★★★★★
Our first sight of anyone in Thisispopbaby's outstanding drama is of two strangers, on opposite sides of a bed, who have dropped their clothes and their guard. A woman floats to the window, makes a remark on the protective solitude of the hotel room, and invites the man to stay for the afternoon. When it becomes clear he has somewhere else to be, she, in Kate Stanley Brennan's superb performance, smiles through the disappointment.

Ever since the leisure classes of Edith Wharton cosied up to one another, every postcoital scene has felt the expectation to show lovers lying back flushed, sharing a cigarette. If that image is ripe only for parody nowadays, Mark O’Halloran’s first solo play in a decade offers something remarkable and unheard of. Episodic in structure, the plot follows Stanley Brennan’s woman through different sexual encounters over the course of a year, under an anonymity that sometimes allows for profound connections. (“It’s odd. I don’t know your name,” says one character. The audience is thinking the same thing).

The woman’s different admirers, embodied by an adept Fionn Ó Loingsigh, bumble into moments of social awkwardness and give flashes of cringing ignorance. During one warm, frolicsome wind-down, we see partners lounging in their underwear, joking about a prevalent hook-up culture, when a man begins to speak freely about the death of his father. It’s as if the act of having sex allows strangers to gently reveal details of their lives.

When one bedfellow fails to give her an orgasm, Kate Stanley Brennan's character turns her frustration into an expression of more deep-rooted anguish: 'You know what I've learned after all this shit? You can't love someone if they don't love themselves'

Where director Tom Creed’s riveting production allows such breathtaking scenes of intimacy to linger, elsewhere it presents the plot’s various meetings as thornier negotiations. Stanley Brennan folds her arms and raises an eyebrow through ramblings about ex-girlfriends and blatant expressions of self-interest, and is even glimpsed occasionally in grips of violence.

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When one bedfellow fails to give her an orgasm, she turns her frustration into an expression of more deep-rooted anguish: “You know what I’ve learned after all this shit? You can’t love someone if they don’t love themselves.”

The overwhelming pain of a past relationship has thrown her into a limbo – the noirish bedsit of Sarah Bacon’s set, catching the halogen yellows of the city in Sarah Jane Shiels’s lighting – much to the concern of her sister (expertly played by Niamh McCann), who, slyly, is another character missing the presence of loved ones.

Stanley Brennan's sublime performance allows the woman to be stirred by people she meets. She looks on tearfully as a young musician, after divulging the sad, derailing events of his life, gives a generous, melodic performance. She holds the hand of one affectionate wooing man, for whom their sex is a respite from worrying about his sick mother. These may be sweeping exchanges of heartache and consolation, yet, by the admirable end of O'Halloran's extraordinary script, there is still no roadmap to healing. Heartbreak is an open wound. That's not to say that outside romance, and among the wreckage, people aren't able to reach one another.

Runs at Project Arts Centre until Sunday, October 17th, as part of Dublin Theatre Festival. Also streaming on Saturday, October 16th, then available on demand until Saturday, October 23rd