Hero review: One of the oldest tales gets the freshest possible expression

The hero of Ken Rogan’s excellent debut is a warrior on the pitch but lost at sea in matters of the heart

Hero: Daithí Mac Suibhne is absorbing as John Smithy, whose name slyly puts him somewhere between Everyman and a nobody

Hero: Daithí Mac Suibhne is absorbing as John Smithy, whose name slyly puts him somewhere between Everyman and a nobody

 

HERO

Bewley’s Café Theatre, Dublin
★★★★☆
A distinguished warrior on the football pitch, a loyal and aggressive leader of men, the protagonist of Ken Rogan’s inspired debut play is all at sea in matters of the heart. If that puts him in mind of any ancient antecedents – men from legend and myth who journeyed far for love and war – Smithy doesn’t dwell too much on it. “Hector,” he chances, attempting to impress one unattainable woman. “Priam… Nissan?” It’s all Greek to him.

So is passion, whether it involves rage, love, brooding or humiliation, the storms of emotion that could lure a headstrong man to shipwreck. We discover John Smithy (whose name slyly puts him somewhere between Everyman and a complete nobody) in the corner of a celebration that does not involve him. Naomi Faughnan’s economical and effective set, a wall of cascading wine glasses and shimmering lights, might recall the cosmos or a giant roll of bubble wrap. Either would fit nicely with the absorbing performance of Daithí Mac Suibhne, so proud he could imagine himself the figure of a constellation, and ultimately somebody much more fragile.

Rogan subtly combines that sense of posture and poetry throughout this monologue, allowing echoes of the epic, romantic and tragic in his hero’s journey, while still keeping it all recognisably real. It helps that while Rogan is clearly a fine writer, his character’s expressions are believably blunt. Left frustrated and speechless by the charismatic Marissa, who has a boyfriend, he complains of “blue balls of the lips”. Abandoned later and distracted mid-pick-up by her text message, he laments “being cock-blocked by a fucking ghost”.

If Rogan wants to give the oldest tales the freshest possible expression he succeeds with an admirably light touch. In that, he and Mac Suibhne are winningly assisted by Amilia Stewart’s direction, alive to both the braggadocio and the tenderness of the character. One gorgeous, unashamedly erotic sequence summons the moment this chaste affair is finally consummated, ushering Mac Suibhne into a discretely physical performance of ecstasy, just on the edge of a dance.

Smithy, of course, reels from similar exposures of his own vulnerability, now the sulking “other man” in a love triangle, toyed with by a seemingly indifferent lover, and erupting violently – on the pitch, in the bar, in his imagination. Rogan does allow his character some self-insight and self-reference, resigning to be “a little less Achilles and a little more Odysseus” in romance.

That may be one reference too far to keep Smithy’s interest in the classics purely casual. Yet this play is so breezily well acquainted with contemporary storytelling that it can crush someone’s world with just a fateful Facebook check-in. Even more stealthy, and satisfying, is Rogan’s suggestion that these impossible hero narratives, no less than the intoxications of desire and the rages of toxic masculinity, are an inheritance that belongs to everybody.

Runs until Saturday, December 1st

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