Peacock stage, Abbey Theatre, Dublin
Whether being used to hide a secret lover or as a convenient obstacle for someone to bump into for laughs, an antique bedroom wardrobe has been a theatrical staple since the French farces of the 1890s: it provides yet another door to slam. What are we to make, then, of the man in Lie Low, Ciara Elizabeth Smyth’s excellent shape-shifting play, who randomly steps into a woman’s bedroom without a bang, formally dressed but looking ludicrous in a duck mask?
In those head-spinning opening moments, Duckman (played by Thomas Finnegan) and Faye, an edgy woman living alone (Charlotte McCurry), are seen Lindy Hopping to the big-band brass of Louis Prima’s Sing, Sing, Sing. It’s a partner dance that seems either too obscure to grasp or to be stowing away the ultrafine details of a world where physical intimacy has become warped.
There is an uneasy sense in McCurry’s forcefully polite performance that Faye, jittering with anxiety and unable to sleep for weeks, is living in a world where concerns are being treated not with seriousness but with the light comedy of bedroom farce. “There must be something wrong with you,” we hear an omnipresent doctor say, sounding casual and overly familiar, before listing off unfounded diagnoses, from depression to bipolar disorder. When she reveals that she was attacked months ago by an intruder breaking into her home, it recasts the Duckman’s emergence in the play’s opening scene in a sinister light.
This unsettling coproduction by Smyth and Prime Cut Productions, which is directed by Oisín Kearney, is a masterclass in subtle, unexpected detail. During a screwy reunion with her brother, Naoise (Michael Patrick), who has recently been absent and drinking a lot, the severity of Faye’s trauma is underplayed by absurd observations about design culture (Naoise describes her gloomily bare home as “Scandinavian”) before she asks him to participate in an exposure-therapy exercise to try to cure her insomnia: he wants her to step out of her wardrobe so that he can attack her.
Smyth has bent the logic of farce before, in her comedies We Can’t Have Monkeys in the House and All Honey, but this time around it feels like a direct response to recent events.
At one point in their re-enactment of the attack, Naoise reveals that he has been accused of sexual harassment by a colleague, a charge he is defending himself against. For Faye it presents a dilemma. How can he believe what happened to her and not another woman?
That leads to a tense stand-off and allows Patrick a compellingly ambiguous performance: is he a genuine attacker or a convenient perpetrator? By the play’s conclusion, when Faye has profited from telling the story of her attack, it’s clear we’re in a world stalked by spectres of male violence but also where accusations can be false and there are cash prizes for pain.
Lie Low is the wardrobe slam: the other side of the essential but sometimes confusing portal opened by #MeToo.