From a Low and Quiet Sea: A reckoning of sins, secrets and sacrifice

Review: Galway International Arts Festival premieres staging of Donal Ryan’s novel


Nun’s Island Theatre, Galway
Rating: 3/5

On paper, Donal Ryan’s novels seem perfectly suited to theatrical adaptation. The urgent first-person narratives of Ryan’s The Spinning Heart and The Thing About December have already been successfully staged in Ireland, the interwoven voices providing audiences with intimate engagements with his characters, whose fates are aligned in surprising and unpredictable ways. Decadent Theatre were responsible for the adaptation of The Thing About December in 2019, and director Andrew Flynn leads the staging of From a Low and Quiet Sea, adapted from the 2018 novel by Ryan in collaboration with Flynn and the actors.

The plot revolves around four personal narratives, each presented in monologue form by single actors on a sparely-designed stage. John (Lorcan Cranitch) is a man at the end of his life, reckoning with his own sins, unsure who he should seek forgiveness from. Florence (Maeve Fitzgerald) carries the past with her too; the secret of her son’s father and his shocking acts of “love”. Farouk (Aosaf Afzal) is fleeing war with his young family, whom he accidentally sacrifices in pursuit of their freedom. Lampy (Darragh O’Toole) is mourning the loss of his first love, trying to figure out what the future holds for him.

Lampy is the best drawn of these characters, a familiar Ryan type, a small-town jack-the-lad with complex family relationships. Here, Lampy’s voice is distinguished from the poetic monotone of the other characters too. With idiosyncratic vocal tics and a unique self-deprecating tone, O’Toole brings a distinct energy to his confessionals too. The quiet, relatable realism of his character arc distinguishes Lampy’s tale from the melodramatic reach of the story’s denouement, in which the characters’ lives come suddenly together in the final moments.

The play is simply staged on bleached wood floorboards against an abstract grey backdrop designed by Ger Sweeney. When lit by Ciaran Bagnall, the oversized canvas becomes the sea, the sky, the sunset and a boat on a raging stormy sea. The actors come and go as they tell their stories, and this is the production’s key mistake, producing laboured transitions between the unfolding narratives that slows the momentum down. This changes towards the end of the second act, as the characters’ relationships start to become clear. Indeed, the final tableau, where Cranitch is frozen in a pose of penitent genuflection and the other actors join him on stage, offers a belated moment of deep theatrical resonance for the audience, where the staging finally matches the emotional heft of Ryan’s language.


Runs at Nun’s Island Theatre until July 24th as part of Galway International Arts Festival

Sara Keating

Sara Keating

Sara Keating, a contributor to The Irish Times, is an arts and features writer