Review: Conservatory

Michael West’s new play at the Abbey is a grimly amusing and deeply unsettling exploration of marriage

Deirdre Donnelly and Stephen Brennan in Conservatory by Michael West

Deirdre Donnelly and Stephen Brennan in Conservatory by Michael West



Peacock Theatre, Dublin


“Do you know who died?” asks a husband of his wife, making casual conversation midway through Michael West’s new play for the Abbey. The poor fellow is just one name in a cascade of the fallen – acquaintances, friends and close relatives – everyone, in fact, who was present at their wedding. Looking at this aging, acrimonious Protestant couple, played by Stephen Brennan and Deirdre Donnelly, it isn’t entirely clear whether they survived it either.

Such is the ambiguous quality of life granted to the characters, credited only as He and She, occupying opposing high-backed armchairs like chess pieces in eternal stalemate. That may signal a bleak meditation on marriage, but West is up to something more grimly amusing and quietly unsettling, his scenes of emotional decay hinting at a social and metaphysical disintegration.

West’s play, as director Michael Barker-Caven both recognises and sometimes resists, is deceptively barren (other than sparse furnishings and a tattered dictionary, the space is defined by darkness and light), yet it is constructed in artful layers. Early on, Brennan dimly recalls Schrödinger’s thought experiment, in which the uncertain fate of a cat in a box makes it both alive and dead at the same time. Just what are we watching in this sealed room, then, and why is his pet name for her, Pussy?

If this sounds Beckettian, with two characters locked in bitter co-dependence and routine, the difference is that West’s theatre (like Schrödinger’s cat) is just as fleshly as it is abstract, providing a real social context and – gasp! – even a story. In their conversation, we discover the loss that perversely binds the couple, his philandering, the alienation of his daughters, a lifetime of isolation. We also hear of amalgamated Protestant churches, the loss of their grounds, money, history. Death may stalk the play, in memories, coarsening sentiments, humiliating ailments or even busying pastimes. But the more sombre realisation is the complete erosion of a social order – oblivion guaranteed.

Brennan and Donnelly convey people whose affection has been stolen by tragedy (which, in a hoped-for catharsis, or an impossible search for defined meaning, He is trying to revisit) but Brennan’s deeper relationship is with the audience. Mobile (albeit, bow-legged with piles) where Donnelly is sedentary, comically irascible where she is monotonously reprimanding, and given to trademark fillips of performance – his face inscribing lascivious recollections at the mention of her sister – he forms a conspiracy with the spectator. It’s enjoyable but unbalancing: a match this bad should be evenly matched.

Barker-Caven, too, can grow restless, underlining certain lines of dialogue with amplified echoes or the shiver of Philip Stewart’s sound effects, then ending a carefully austere production with a coup de théâtre that seems more like compensation than accentuation. It’s a rare moment of self-assertion in a production that otherwise recognises a more genuine and affecting terror: the thought of fading away, the suspicion of being alive and dead at the same time.

Ends April 12