Abbey Theatre, Dublin
How many layers can you find in a single utterance? “He said we’ve a serious problem,” Andrew Bennett reports, in a tone that might be his character note – purposeful bewilderment. “He says it’s been there for years and we haven’t done anything about it.” He is alluding to a dry rot infestation, but as his marriage quietly crumbles, his wife (Janet Moran) plumbs further: “I know.”
With the return of the Corn Exchange’s magnificent Freefall, a show that has increased in poetry and poignancy in the year since its debut, its audience will chance deeper interpretations still. But while Michael West’s play can certainly be taken as a state of the nation metaphor, Annie Ryan’s production is more rewarding in the soft ache of its human drama. Somehow it makes Freefallneither a despairing nor punitive piece. Its overall sensation is that of its title, the weightlessness of profound change, unnerving but exhilarating.
Beginning with the morning after a disastrous night, West’s play zips with the urgency of a sudden stroke towards a hospital – “people, we need to see the inside of his head” – and flashes back to the folds of youthful memory. It reveals a numbed figure: an orphan separated from his sister, taunted by his cousin (a nicely debased Declan Conlon) and clinging to a brittle marriage full of love but short on passion with Louise (Moran, who does subdued pain as well as she does comic drunkenness).
It is an unexceptional life assembled from pieces (in one archly indicative moment, Bennett finds a jigsaw in the basement of his subconscious), but created for him by a dextrous ensemble, including the excellent Ruth McGill and tersely amusing Damien Kearney, who don and discard characters, supply live sound effects (which make recorded versions puzzling) and incorporate multimedia with unusual ingenuity.
Faces loom from a screen when addressing Bennett’s incapacitated body – Jack Phelan’s video design plays stimulating games with perspective – but in Bennett’s tremendous performance his inner self roams in pyjamas, a vulnerable, touching, comic everyman. His life is equally mundane and complicated, full of achievements and humiliations. As your heart breaks for him, Ryan’s playful, unsentimental, tender treatment is profoundly reassuring – Corn Exchange’s great achievement. In his fall he has been seen, understood and recognised. He has been caught.