Puppets and puritans

This production compresses Nathaniel Hawthorne’s epic into a 90-minute slot, and succeeds thanks to its seductive atmosphere

 

The Scarlet Letter
Millennium Hall, Cork
****
In the alphabet of sin, a is for adultery. In The Scarlet Letter, Nathaniel Hawthorne’s romance of Puritan Massachusetts, the letter is stitched to Hester Prynne’s bodice as a badge of public shame.

Complicated by digressions into the dark, psychological intricacies of cowardice, revenge and community malice, the plot essentially honours the way in which the accusatory symbol becomes instead a banner of resistance and redemption, despite a community ever-ready to cast the first stone.

Conflicted Theatre must have been aware that building one’s temple, or theatre, on ground already claimed by someone else is fraught with risk, and it’s true that this young company, strutting its stuff for the Cork Midsummer Festival, presents a superficial condensation of the acclaimed American novel. Yet while director Gavin McEntee and his seven-strong cast may not manage a Hawthorne, the company has some stuff to strut.

They skate with style, confidence and innovation on the surface of a book described by Henry James as “Absolutely American, out of the very heart of New England”. They excel in the ensemble pieces and are particularly persuasive in the manipulation of Pearl, the articulated puppet that represents the offspring of adultery.

Once outside the difficult acoustic of the Millennium Hall, an audience might ponder some of the eliminations deemed necessary to accommodate Hawthorne’s epic into a 90-minute time-slot. There might be a question as to how strongly the writer’s family kinship to the witch-hunters of Salem influenced aspects of the story, as in the re-appearance of Hester’s former husband like a curse on two legs. There might be observations too on the need to master a more reflective phrasing, particularly where the archaisms of the text have to be delivered with authority, rather than passion.

But such havering fades in the glow of vibrant performances, Olan Wrynn’s grimly captivating puppetry, and the seductive tonal atmosphere created by set and costume designer Deirdre Dwyer.

Runs until Sunday