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Adagio Teas
   Features  >  London Theatre Reviews

at the National (Lyttelton)


  Emily Taafe and Jim Norton/ Ph: Helen Warner

Conor McPherson's new play is his first set in the past, but in 1822 it's the mixture as before – ghosts, drink and decay. This being Ireland, the characters are as drunk on words as they are on "the creature." (One of them is seldom without a brandy for his "cold," which, another points out, he has had for the past year and a half).
Religion is the third member of the trinity to which the Irish are always in thrall, and the Reverend Berkeley has no less authority for being defrocked. He is going to accompany the teenage Hannah, from a grand Protestant family that has lost its money and men, to England, where a marriage has been arranged with a peer (rather an odd one, who is willing to wed a poor Irish stranger, but that's only one of many implausibilities).
Hannah's reluctance is intensified by the voices she hears in the old house (grandly atmospheric plasterwork, foxed mirrors and faded walls by Rae Smith). She thinks they prophesy disaster if she leaves. The bumptiously helpful Berkeley arranges a séance to clear things up, but does not reckon on the horrors that can await those who try to rend the veil between the living and the dead.
This rich texture and atmosphere, however – plus a lot of talk about German idealist philosophers – turn heavy and sluggish without action or even much of a relationship between the characters. There is a bit of Chekhov-style ineffectual violence, after which one character abandons his hopeless crush on another, but the unrequited lover is peripheral to the rest, and his outburst, near the end of the play, points up the lack of feeling that has preceded it.
Nor do the characters inspire much feeling in us. The peasants outside are starving, and at one point we hear that a row of houses belonging to the family has collapsed, killing the inhabitants. Are we supposed to condemn these feckless rulers who have bled the Irish dry or fear that such civilised, charming people may face the peasants' revenge? Neither emotion nor politics is explored, and Ireland outside the walls remains as unreal as it is invisible.
Directing his own work, McPherson has a cast that gives him sterling performances. Emily Taafe's Hannah, sullen and fractious, seems a bit anachronistic, but her innocence and vulnerability are never in doubt, and Fenella Woolgar and Ursula Jones as, respectively, her mother and grandmother don't spare the charm, the latter all gracious smiles and bobs even when slipping in and out of dementia. As Berkeley, Jim Norton provides nearly all the play's nervous energy. Like the script, though, he seems to always be running in place. At the end the play leaves you feeling that you have passed two and a half hours in high-class company, and that the National Theatre does this sort of thing very well. But you will also be wondering why they bothered.


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