The Blackwater Lightship
Watching the stage-adaptation premiere of The Blackwater Lightship, Colm Tóibín’s 1999 Booker-nominated novel, now, in 2022, you could read it as: A Warning, Lest We Forget.
That is, lest we forget how things were societally in our not-so-distant past, and how much things have changed. But, more so, a warning that the past, on a personal level, catches up with us, and old wounds and past actions continue to have an effect in the present.
At one point onstage, Ruth McCabe’s Dora, of a generation perhaps practised in ignoring truths, observes: “Is there a need to rake over everything?” Clearly there is, because it has come back to bite them all.
In David Horan’s nuanced adaptation for Verdant Productions, which he also directs, we find the characters in confinement for a few days in a large rural house by the sea: Maree Kearns’s set, a domestic scene, melds with the grey Co Wexford sky dissected by sporadic beams from the Blackwater Lightship.
Here Rachel O’Byrne’s wounded Helen, her mother — brisk, brittle, defensive Lily (Karen Ardiff) — and grandmother Dora have just learned that Helen’s little brother Declan (David Rawle) has HIV/Aids. In the 1990s this means, as Dora immediately comprehends, that “nothing can be done, so”.
His family intersects with his reality when Declan retreats to his granny’s house, the scene of the play, with two supportive friends: Donncha O’Dea’s endearing, funny and emotional Larry, and Will O’Connell’s serious, slightly priggish and unfailingly loyal Paul. Declan is looking for something from all of them: “I’m not calm. I only look calm,” he says.
The family dynamic moves along with a mix of humour and bickering, black cloud overhead notwithstanding
Coping with Declan’s impending death and previously unacknowledged sexuality — that buried past — is the trigger for exposing a gaping wound from their childhood, Helen’s still seething sense of abandonment when their father was dying. There are recriminations, resentment, jealousy, bitterness. If this sounds overwrought, it’s mostly not, but the family dynamic moves along with a mix of humour and bickering, black cloud overhead notwithstanding.
Interludes such as Larry’s coming-out story and visits from Billie Traynor’s deliciously nosy neighbour are very funny but also point up a judgmental, shame-filled world. These lives, we are keenly aware, are on the cusp of a changing Ireland, although it was clearly going to be too late for many.
The terrific ensemble create strong, believable, well-rounded characters in this intense, intimate tale, making for an emotionally engaging, meaty and satisfying performance. There’s humour and sadness and a sense of lives blighted by mistakes and bigotry.
“It felt like shame,” Lily says of her husband’s untimely death, years ago. Well, there’s a lot of it about. It was powerful stuff then on the page; now, in a changed world, it is no less powerful and affecting.