There’s a thrill, when the curtain rises on Carmel Winters’s new play for the Abbey Theatre and reveals Fly Davis’s dishevelled and mud-splattered domestic set, sealed more like a war bunker than a home. Fuelled by Feminist and theatrical histories, this dark comedy poses a startling truth about the past: the only way for a woman to escape the Irish kitchen is to start digging her own grave under the floorboards.
That’s our first sight of Maisie Duggan (Bríd Ní Neachtain), knee-high in her plot. It’s as much a surprise to us as to her resentful daughter Kathleen (Rachel O’Byrne), returned from London believing that her mother was already dead. The play, with its misleading death, exiling truths and firm hold upon a farmyard spade, suggests a ‘Playwoman of the Western World’.
Maisie, we learn, suffered a near-death experience whilst trying to flee her tyrant husband (John Olohan), to whom her only use was cooking the dinner. While on bed-rest, their unwanted son (Cillian Ó Gairbhí) works to be useful.
When it comes to the nitty-gritty of the play’s mysteries, principally Kathleen’s secret life in London, the plotline is rather convenient. Revelations aren’t delayed as much by action but by exposition and weak excuses. “I’m impressionable, I’ll believe anything,” pleads Kathleen at one point. The audience are less gullible.
It’s hard to believe what we’re seeing. The symbolism couldn’t be more obvious when the sacred heart starts to glow alongside Maisie’s account of her accident, framing it as punishment for going against the Catholic morals of a dedicated wife. But, it’s also hard not to laugh as Kathleen finds companionship in an invisible cat, and even more so when she tries to resuscitate it following its death. For a director approaching the play as seriously as Ellen McDoughall, it’s challenging to prevent the staging from becoming funny for the wrong reasons.
The play’s iconoclasm, therefore, becomes as slippery as its tone. Even the impact of the violent conclusion, nudged throughout by Winters’s wicked dialogue, is robbed by the production’s fondness for supernatural effects.
This doesn’t serve the efforts of the hard-working cast, and even risks obscuring the play’s finer picture: the recurring cycles of domestic abuse through Irish history. Interrogating this theme further is as good a reason as any to pay another visit to the kitchen.
The Remains of Maisie Duggan runs at the Abbey Theatre until October 29th. Click here for more details.