Smock Alley Theatre, Dublin
"So, what brings you to the end of the world?" asks Owen Rowe's brusque ecologist, Prof Boylan, recently joined by an ambitious assistant in a research facility in the Antarctic. It's a fair question in Shane Mac an Bhaird's new play for Rough Magic, which begins with a chill reality but bends unsteadily towards the surreal, like a Dali clock, as it depicts catastrophes human and global. If the polar ice caps are melting, how solid are we?
Insulated by thermal outwear and whiskey, Roe’s isolated professor is tellingly exploring the void. A hole bores 4km into an ice cap, which the jerry-rigged apparatus of Sarah Bacon’s fetching set makes look faintly like a wishing well. Down there, nature has evolved, protected from the contamination of human civilisation, and an initially enthusiastic researcher called Cook (a nicely conceited Charlie Maher) is soon less impressed by either the hole or his duties operating the winch. Is that all there is?
Mac an Bhaird, a playwright with an imagination as political as it is ludic, lets logic drift like the snow. (Any spectators, inspired perhaps by scientists or explorers, who prefer to make their own discoveries, should stop reading now.) Deep in the ice, Boylan discovers an infant, alone and unharmed, whom he brings back to the surface. Has isolation made both men go stir crazy? Have deeper reverberations of personal trauma or occasional Skype calls from the fantastic Rebecca O’Mara – as Boylan’s accomplished ex-partner and Cook’s desired future partner, Dr Hansen – made reality buckle? Or has the play distended into a weird, lucid dream?
My money is on the latter: one that is pregnant with symbol if loose with meaning. When the infant develops with unnatural speed into a staggering, shivering creature, with a tendency to erupt in giggles, repeat phrases verbatim and even lay eggs, we get someone who is part human, part parrot, and wholly Genevieve Hulme-Beaman. Some will find this role utterly entrancing, others will wonder if the “noble savage” was a patronising stock character worth preserving. When the driving force behind Boylan’s unravelling isolation is revealed, it also feels glibly generic, a stock trauma where the writer’s idiosyncratic imagination might have drilled deeper.
Still, there's no other play quite like Melt right now, and director Lynne Parker treats it all with limpid attention, where science flickers into hallucination, like the spectral apparitions that glide through John Galvin's video work. Above all, Roe portrays a drive within the human race that is more baffling than any unexpected lurch of the play, the self-destructive urge to rush towards oblivion.
Runs until October 8th