Donegal review: family saga is Chekhov in cowboy boots

Frank McGuinness’s sprawling new ‘play with songs’ does not always hit the high notes

Siobhán McCarthy and Killian Donnelly as Irene and Jackie Day in “Donegal” by Frank McGuinness which is having its premiere  as part of the Dublin Theatre Festival. Photograph: Peter Rowen

Siobhán McCarthy and Killian Donnelly as Irene and Jackie Day in “Donegal” by Frank McGuinness which is having its premiere as part of the Dublin Theatre Festival. Photograph: Peter Rowen

 

Donegal  ★★
Abbey Theatre, Dublin

Behold “the voice of Ireland”. Fading country and Irish music star Irene Day (Siobhán McCarthy) takes the stage ablaze with sequins and belts out a suspiciously jaunty lament entitled At My Mother’s Grave.

This, we later learn, is wishful thinking in waltz time. Frank McGuinness’s new “play with songs”, with music by Kevin Doherty, takes a similar position: representing the “voice of Donegal” in its sprawling depiction of family, jealousy and art, where voices are either lost or rediscovered.

With their fortunes in rapid decline, the Days are numbered, but they still cling to the possibility of miraculous salvation. That may come from Irene’s all-but-estranged son, Jackie (an impressive Killian Donnelly), a rising star in the US. He is ready to compromise his sexuality and soul in pursuit of success, but still nurses resentment about his mother’s unexplained rejection.

This could be Chekhov in cowboy boots: the Day estate abounds with extended family, love triangles and generational tensions, while its feast-to-famine fixation suggests national wounds, both ancient and recent.

Almost all of McGuinness’s characters are cartoonishly nasty, though, and there are so very many of them. “We are loyal in our loathing,” announces grandmother Magdalene (a commanding Deirdre Donnelly). And while she is initially grimly funny, a din of scorn and violent threats becomes preposterous and eventually tiresome. (When everyone is outrageous, nobody is.)

They hold some reverence for music, though; however, not Irene’s which is dismissed as “instantly forgettable” and composed accordingly, but for its origin and possession.

In McGuinness’s play everything is changeable, winding through interior and exterior spaces, leaving it to Arnim Fries’s video design to briskly indicate locations and director Conall Morrison to determine how song functions: sometimes as a concert cutaway, an eruptive shared moment, or an internal expression, usually involving awkward tableaux.

Over a wearing 3 hours, there are few showstoppers and many that simply slow the whole thing down. A halting medley of original songs and folk classics is often nicely served by the cast and musical director Conor Linehan, but they have only a glancing relationship to the narrative.

In one fascinating moment, when relatives squabble over the authorship of a song about Donegal fishermen, Magdalene silences the argument by considering this “soft snatch of music” unworthy of real sacrifice. It suggests a play nervily alive to the relationship between hard realities and artistic representation.

In one respect, at least, it has no illusions: thinking back to her unsanitary touring days, Irene wonders how she avoided typhoid. “That’s showbiz, missus,” comes her reply.

Until November 19th

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