Review: Mangan’s Last Gasp

Gerard Lee’s new play looks for rhyme and reason in the eccentric life and death of James Clarence Mangan

Bewley's Cafe Theatre, Dublin

Do poets get the biographies they deserve? Or is it better to ask whether they got the lives they deserved in the first place? Those questions hover around Gerard Lee's comic précis of James Clarence Mangan, the 19th-century Dublin poet, whose literary genius seemed inextricable from his eccentricity.

Discovered on his deathbed by Dr William Wilde – a surgeo n and cultured gentleman whose most significant contribution to literature would be his son, Oscar – Mangan is first proclaimed "a corpse, unburied". Lee, who plays the poet as a nervy oddball, sits bolt upright, inviting a second opinion. That zany gesture seems appropriate for a man rarely seen without a blond wig and a witch's hat, and it suggests this spirited production would like to revive Mangan's reputation as much as his body.

Lee and director Iseult Golden have similar ideas about how to treat their subject: the playwright threading poetic quotation and allusions through his dialogue, the director wrapping the action in live music. Pierpaolo Vitale's engagingly performed piano, beautifully responsive to the stage action, makes the performance feel like a default melodrama. That's no bad thing – without Vitale, the piece would lose propulsion.

Lee writes and performs with affection for his subject, slurping "tar water" or, in the play's most arresting sequence, reeling off various personas and pseudonyms as though an unravelling identity disorder: "Clarence in all his Manganosities." But Manganosity needs better velocity. Alt hough Michael James Ford is admirably sardonic as a man diagnosing both the patient and his talent , his character is essentially a prompter. Andrew Murray and Jack Kirwan's appealingly sepulchral set accentuates the play's true direction, which, for all its quirks, is towards a haunted lament. "I contracted horror," the poet describes his early contagion. It's no accident that Lee moves steadily towards Mangan's most elegiac poem, And Then No More ; it's a brief vision of possibility that resolves in echoes of eternal loss. That seems to contain the whole pulse of this diverting biographical coda, where the poet's heart, "Would beat anew a little while, and then no more."
Until April 27th

Peter Crawley

Peter Crawley

Peter Crawley, a contributor to The Irish Times, writes about theatre, television and other aspects of culture