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Adagio Teas
   Features  >  London Theatre Reviews

at the National (Lyttelton)


  Emily Taaffe and Adrian Schiller/ Ph: Helen Warner

There are veils aplenty in Conor McPherson’s 19th century-set new play, all of the metaphorical sort, and nearly all shrouding the welter of desire, guilt and fear that surge through McPherson’s largely unhappy assortment of characters. The most significant veil, though, is that between the real world and the spirit one, which for Hannah (Emily Taaffe), the 16-year-old daughter of McPherson’s grand, Anglo-Irish house, appears to be particularly fragile, for she insists she can hear voices in the house that no one else can.

Hannah's widowed mother’s cousin, the defrocked Reverend Berkeley (Jim Norton), has arrived with his alcoholic and laudanum-addicted, philandering philosopher friend Audelle (Adrian Schiller) to accompany Hannah to England for her forthcoming marriage to an English Marquis (arranged by her mother in order to release some much-needed funds) but is much more interested in making contact with whoever is trying to make contact with Hannah.

Add to that Hannah’s suicided father, whose hanging body she discovered over the mantelpiece when she was nine, the pestilence raging outside as rural Ireland succumbs to the devastating famine of 1822, and the setting of a once-grand estate now on the brink of bankruptcy (and beautifully evoked through the dance of shadows and candlelight in Rae Smith’s magnificently dilapidated set), and you have all the ingredients for a supernatural, Chekhovian-flavoured country house thriller.

Alcoholicism and ghosts have long been favoured tropes of McPherson, although this is the first time he has set a play in the past, and perhaps the first time he has properly offered the possibility of ghosts, or voices, as manifestations of a deeper political trauma. And there are moments of genuine jump-in-your-seat terror here, particularly when Norton’s extravagantly enthusiastic Berkeley attempts a séance with Hannah and Audelle, and something dreadful suddenly appears in the door.

Moreover, the play’s thematic anxiety about the responsibilities of parenthood (and with it, the responsibilities and legacy of a colonial power) manifests itself in several, eerie passing references to dead children (both within and without the house), while a more earthy seam of tragedy runs through Peter McDonald’s outstanding, reckless Mr Fingal, desperately and hopelessly in love with Hannah’s mother Lady Madeleine Lambroke (Fenella Woolgar).

Yet the period formalities of McPherson’s chosen setting appear to have infected his conception of narrative. You suspect McPherson – so raw a writer in plays such as Dublin Carol – is holding back here, never quite removing the veil from his characters or his themes sufficiently to allow him to really get his hands dirty. At the same time, he is almost too literal – an explanation from Audelle for one of Hannah’s particularly vivid visions is allowed to gather rather more narrative plausibility than perhaps it ought.

More significantly, the real terrors seem not to be inside the house at all, but outside, among Ireland’s impoverished poor, with some of McPherson’s best writing here evoking almost biblical images of the starving hordes, yet they are always marginalised by McPherson’s greater – and largely incoherent – fascination with metaphysics. There is plenty of lyricism here, and it is directed with fluency and grace by McPherson himself (although another director may have not have felt the need to stretch the play out to nearly three hours), but with the most philosophically minded character a drug-addled fool, you can’t help but wish McPherson had paid less attention to things that go bump in the night and a bit more to actual ideas.


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