From the start of Lynda Radley’s beguiling play, when a company of performers arrive to set up their odditorium (or freak show), it forces us to consider how we judge. These exhibitions from centuries’ past mined people’s unusual appearances for public spectacle. Yet director Tom Creed’s production shuffles them onstage, uneventful and awkward. It seems we’re not here to ridicule, but to bear witness.
Radley’s 2011 play, receiving its Irish premiere by The Everyman in association with Cork Midsummer Festival and Project Arts Centre, is fascinatingly elegiac. An assault on the travelling company’s manager, Riley (a devilish Michael Glenn Murphy), by local “townies” signals a change in the air. Thanks to modern science they’re no longer looked upon as marvels but biological defects. Their act needs to change.
We watch on with some horror as Riley discovers the kind of vulgar sensationalism still selling tabloids today. His new policy is to showcase the company’s transformation into the status quo. The world’s fattest man (Gerard Byrne) starts slimming down. A bearded and armless countess (Gina Moxley) gets a shave. But George/Georgina, a guarded hermaphrodite played by Amy Conroy, isn’t convinced the attraction will last.
Radley’s poetic meditation on difference and acceptance gets a stranger twist still when Serena, the mute mermaid (a self-possessed Karen McCartney), is revealed to be actually from the sea. For an extravagant outsider, the peculiarities of our world are extraordinary.
After its slow and indifferent start, Creed’s production never quite finds the pace to engage. It lingers too long where some dynamism might pull us in. It’s difficult playing, perhaps, for a cast to fold their character’ exoticism into something more human. Byrne belongs to a more grotesque drama. A set of Siamese twins (Gillian McCarthy and Julie Sharkey) play it as a comedy. Conroy is all sombre and silent seething. The cast doesn’t connect. It also feels like self-sabotage for Paul O’Mahony’s set, transforming a vacant site into a big top, and Sinéad McKenna’s blinding lights to be the stuff of pageantry, when the play suggests a wrought journey away from such exploitation.
There are times, however, when the slow pace pays off. Byrne stirs as a slim man binge-eating pies, only to be filled with shame. Moxley’s countess holds a strange beauty as she gets shaved in front of a dressing room mirror. Such vivid moments are effective reminders that pandering to mediocrity doesn’t last. Celebrating that which is unique is what’s futureproof.
Futureproof is at Cork Midsummer Festival until June 24th. For more details, click here.