Fierce and ancient, contested with teeth-clenched determination but almost invisible to the larger world, there’s a lot about the sport of Hurling that resonates with the Irish past and the Irish present. Kilian, compared locally to Cúchulainn – hero of Irish legend, is a master at it. Admired across the town of Coolatully for his skill with the silotar, his ambitions of the field have dried up following the death of his lark-voiced brother. Fiona Doyle’s debut play is a gruffly elegiac thing, stained and sad but never bitter, its vision of an Ireland haemorrhaging its best hopes for a brighter future captured in the gloomth of empty country pubs and lonely houses.
Though the trappings and some of the structuring invokes Martin McDonagh, Conor McPherson or Marina Carr, Doyle’s play is quieter, less gabby and more honest. The bare plot, in which Kilian must choose between his integrity and his love for hopeless friend Paudie, is plain and even predictable, and its characters eschew the grotesquery that’s become something of a commonplace in contemporary Irish drama. Coolatully succeeds through its atmosphere of dreams that have washed pale in the rain, and its characters, who are drawn with skill and endearing without slipping too far into sentiment.
Kilian has watched his friends flee to Australia and New Zealand, and knows he should join them, but any longings in that direction meet the opposite pull of those who require his care. Like his mythological namesake, he seems doomed to stand guard for the vulnerable, sacrificing everything that might have been to watch over his mother, his elderly friend Jimmy, jail-bird Paudie and even his brother’s grave. There’s an implicit understanding that no advantage can be gained through this sacrifice – that his care can never be much more than a gesture, that the best he can hope for is a slight alleviation of the suffering of these faded people. His eventual betrayal of Jimmy’s trust, thieving a handful of Euro’s from a floorboard hidey-hole, seems to come from a sense of desperate emptiness, some terrible mix of grief and futility.
Sad as it is, Doyle’s play is also extremely funny, though again it’s a muted and dry sort of humour. The scenes between Kilian and the cantankerous Jimmy are a bittersweet delight, and the dialogue lilts and crackles with skill. The character of Elish, Kilian’s lover and presumably once also his brother’s, feels underwritten, but it is so utterly Kilian’s play and Kilian’s battle that the tuning down of other elements feels acceptable. It’s part of this Hound’s tragedy that he really has very little left to watch over.
David Mercatali directs a nigh-perfect production, with a strong cast led by Kerr Logan as Kilian, with a delight of a turn by Eric Richard as Jimmy. Mercatali’s understated but carefully measured naturalism is a perfect fit for Doyle’s rhythms, and he doesn’t allow the plot’s (over)-conveniences to worry at his work. Max Dorey contributes a gorgeously detailed design, a world of damp patches and hard furniture on a spelk of stage extruding across the tiny venue. Its transformation from living room to pub is ingenious, and washed over by Christopher Nairne’s melancholic lighting and sound designer Max Pappenheim’s birdsong and the notes of the unbearably sad ‘The Parting Glass’.
Nothing has been re-invented, no awe will be struck, but Doyle has written an expressive and memorable play, and Papatango has given it as strong a production as you could possibly ask for.