'The Beacon' is as sharp as a stiletto, Oonagh Murphy's 'Playboy' is an unfunny farce

Emer O’Kelly sees some extremes of quality in opening productions at Dublin Theatre Festival.

There’s a sense in Nancy Harris’s new play, The Beacon, that her thumb is permanently hovering close to her nose. One-liners that undermine current fashionable pre-occupations flash briefly on the verbal and mental screen only to disappear into the play’s impeccably adult foundations. Harris is, in the best possible way, outside her work, the observer of a society that in her writing seems permanently on the point of implosion, something she regards in part with despair, part wry amusement.

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Through the plots and subplots of The Beacon strides Beiv, a painter of international, somewhat notorious reputation. Her work is explosive, and aims, if it has an aim, to confound expectations. Thus, faced with her pretentious, relentlessly coolly hipster daughter-in-law for the first time, she cuts her down to size more from irritation than deliberate cruelty.

Beiv inhabits an off-shore island where she is converting her dead ex-husband’s cottage which they once shared as a holiday home. She was always welcome there, her ex happy to receive her arts community friends, and even, it seems, her lesbian lovers.

They valued freedom, but always unselfconsciously, with their tolerant, respectful emotional interactions as easy in their marriage as after their divorce. Or so it seemed to a prurient world fascinated by such unfair “placidity”.

But 10 years ago, in mysterious circumstances, Michael was drowned, and in the way of locals towards outsiders, Beiv was suspected of murdering him. And now their son, Colm, a successful systems analyst based in California, has come back to lay his own hauntings to rest. Hence the introduction of his new, much younger wife to his mother.

And in this modern, post-gender stereotyped world, it’s not a problem that long-term island native Donal was Colm’s teenage lover. But inequalities of expectation breed secrets, people’s emotions move at a different pace, and secrets have a habit of undermining mental peace, whether in the old, repressive days, or in today’s society of mindfulness, so often accompanied by demands for unwelcome soul-baring.

Harris handles this complex, demanding scenario with eye-blinking skill; mockery and humour are woven in only as a thematic leaven, with the darkness of our inability to transcend the pain eating away at us covering the surface like a thin crust of barely cooled lava, waiting to erupt again at the first new molten trickle.

If I have a caveat it’s that the final, shattering scene between mother and son could do with some editing: too much explication.

Druid and the Gate have co-produced The Beacon (Druid’s Garry Hynes directs) and gathered an ensemble headed by a devastatingly restrained Jane Brennan as Beiv and Marty Rea switching with incomparable ease from cynically amused cosmopolitan to soul in torment as her son. Equally perfect in his desolate role as the lost, angry Donal is Ian Lloyd-Anderson.

Rae Gray is the bewildered, excluded Bonnie, and there’s a cruelly ugly cameo from Dan Monaghan as a soulless blogger.

Francis O’Connor’s set, dominated by the sea in all its moods, is a triumph, aided not a little by lighting by James F Ingalls. It will transfer to the Gate next week.

*******

Did Beckett run from the void, or into it? Beckett’s Room asks the question. Beckett merely showed us the void without comment.

But what this extraordinary play without actors does is to give us a visualisation of the nothingness at the centre of Beckett’s work: a nothingness that bursts its own seams with anguish and with the echoing sound of silent howling.

Devised and written by Dead Centre (Bush Mouzarkiel and Ben Kidd) and Mark O’Halloran, and directed by the first two, it’s set in the Paris flat that Beckett shared with his lover Suzanne Descheveaux-Dumesnil from 1937 until 1960.

Except for the years between 1942 and 1945, during which the couple, members of a betrayed resistance cell called, ironically, Gloria, fled south to Roussillon where they continued their resistance work as best they could. The flat was left to echo the howling of a humanity in the process of destruction as Paris fell, and Nazism seemed to be the irresistible future. Except. Except for the individual, who, Beckett was to find in his writing, was the conundrum. The individual can either face the darkness and survive, or turn from it and be destroyed.

Beckett’s Room, empty other than when being invaded by the Gestapo who may well use it, desultorily, as a torture chamber, survives on the echoes of its residents’ voices, fearful, unsure, desperate, but still human.

It’s an extraordinary piece, given a quiveringly terrifying life through the voices of Brian Gleeson and Barbara Probst as Beckett and Suzanne, and an equally, drainingly wonderful support cast of the voices that peopled and shadowed their lives in the years that formed Beckett’s genius.

Technically, it’s superb; intellectually, it’s devastating; emotionally it’s searing. It was at the Gate.

*******

On Wednesday night, I saw a play at the Gaiety about the current state of Anglo-Irish relations and the limits of female personal freedom. Mind you, most of the plays I see nowadays, if directed by a woman, claim such provenance. In this case, the director is Oonagh Murphy and I’m indebted, as usually in such circumstances, to her programme note for the information. Because I didn’t spot either topic.

What I saw was an unfunny farce, from the accents set in a determinedly urban Northern Ireland in 2019. It’s called The Playboy of the Western World, by Oonagh Murphy. Oh, sorry. It’s by John Millington Synge, and it was written in 1904. Synge got into trouble for mentioning a female shift in the original production. I’d risk the same by calling out this production (by Lyric Belfast and the Dublin Theatre Festival).

Synge’s dark comedy (for anyone with a tither of sense, as O’Casey’s Mollser might have said) had extraordinary darkness running through it. It was the darkness of isolation, set halfway up a lonely mountainside in Mayo, under-populated and inbred, with the few inhabitants living in dire poverty from which there can never be any escape. There was no hope, the greatest tragedy being that the condition was accepted fatalistically, and even faint hope of joyful sexual interaction was crushed into the dreary religion-sanctioned dutiful copulation.

It’s all there in Playboy, with, according to Synge, the inevitable outcome. Enraged by the loss of an ugly, savage dream (but at least a dream) Pegeen Mike takes burning turf and brands her lover’s leg while he is tied down.

But Murphy’s production is dreary and passionless, coming over as something that might have been seen in a local amateur group in the 1950s, with embarrassingly hammy “comic” set pieces. The soaring language – that in a faithful production is so startling a contrast to the theme – is utterly lost when delivered in unmusical urban accents. (The cast were thrilled to be able to use their own accents, again according to the programme note. Actors??)

Oh, and the fight, which should be terrifying and visceral, is just embarrassing. I could go on, but what’s the point?

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