As poet Patrick Kavanagh wrote “the dead will wear the cap of any racket.” He was referring to the much garlanded Tom Moore but his cynical line might well apply to Liam, the recent suicide in Roisin Coyle’s new play. He’s two different things to his two surviving sisters: to pragmatic Nicola he’s a self-pitying moaner, to the highly-strung Louise he’s a tragic figure whom she failed to help. For their mother – who’s imminent arrival home from work has the girls in such a panic – he was the only, beloved, irreplaceable son.
The reason the girls are in such a panic is that they have to rewrite Liam’s suicide note; the note which is their mother’s only comfort, which she reads religiously each night. Louise has burned the note, which, it transpires, she herself had written in Liam’s easily imitable hand, on finding his corpse. She was driven to “forgery” as a compensatory act for not listening to what she was later convinced were his cries for help. But now, with perhaps too much time on her hands through unemployment – the obsessive Louise regards herself, unironically as a “social outcast” – the compensatory act has become a “torturous trap.” Being her brother’s keeper has reduced her to the state of being incarcerated in a family lie.
Liam’s fictional note, and the problem of replacing it, or not, is a wonderfully simple but effective device for bringing the very different natures of the sisters into conflict. There’s no sense of the danger of a permanent rupture between the two as they circle each other in the cramped kitchen, squabbling over the practical details of rewriting the letter – there’s no more of the “fancy paper” the original note was written on – with the clock ticking down to their mother’s arrival, but the solution to their practical and emotional conundrum remains ticklishly out of sight.
Strong performances from Janice Byrne, as the neurotic Louise, and Niamh McCann as the down-to-earth, typically robust working-class Dublin woman, captivate attention. First time director Janet Moran has them looping through each other in a visual representation of their increasingly knotty problem; and even a very loud kettle, when it boils, though the tea never quite gets made, seems to have been commandeered to add to the pressure.
But what works especially well in Moran’s production is the presence of Liam himself. There’s nothing new about having the dead or the lost as part of the on-stage action, but here the dead man, whose character is being so strenuously mauled by his two sisters, is somehow a more than usually active presence. He sits between them at the table, or regards them, arms folded by the kitchen units, with a faintly eerie mix of intentness and indifference. Is he a malign influence, exerting whatever remains of his shadowy energy to sow dissension between them, or is he simply a homeless soul, waiting for his fate to be decided? Either way, or no way, it’s a fine, tight-lipped performance from Barry O’Connor.
This was the first evening show I’ve attended at TheatreUpstairs, which is acquiring a reputation as one of Dublin’s best independent venue for bold new writing, from Ireland and abroad. They do lunchtime shows too, but actor Karl Shiels, the most public face of this profit-share venture insists “we don’t do lunchtime theatre, we do theatre at lunchtime.” Regardless of the time, this is a venue well worth experiencing.