Reviews West End & Central Published 6 October 2011

The Veil

National Theatre ⋄ 27th September - 11th December 2011

Ghost stories.

Natasha Tripney

So haunt me. Photo: Helen Warner

Hegel wrote of Hamlet that, in his soul, “we understand that death has lurked from the beginning.” Death is also present in Mount Pleasant, the decaying country house of the landed Lambroke family; the building is both a “conduit for desperate souls” and an overstretched metaphor for a country on the cusp.

The Lambroke family are mired in debt, the estate is literally crumbling around them and Lady Lambroke’s daughter Hannah is being packed off to Northampton for a marriage that will alleviate at least some of their financial troubles. When she was just a girl, it was Hannah who found her father’s dead body hanging above the mantel, and she has grown into a troubled young woman who hears other-worldly voices and claims to feel a presence in the house; her hand is bandaged from where she has driven a paring knife into her palm in an attempt to feel a “pain she can understand.” Her chaperone for the journey to Northampton is the Reverend Berkeley, a defrocked priest with an interest in the spiritual realm, and his self-medicating associate Audelle, a philosopher and plagiariser with a murky past.

Conor McPherson’s first new play in five years is big on tell and low on show. Set in rural Ireland of the 1820s, it is larded with exposition and is often thematically knotty. There’s an intriguing weaving of ideas at work here but it comes at the expense of characters capable of convincing in their actions. We are told that estate manager Mr Fingal has a temper and an impulsive streak but even so there’s a jarring inconsistency between the way his character is initially presented and a later outburst which seems to erupt from nowhere. Audelle, meanwhile, for much of the play comes across as something of a buffoon, a comedy dipsomaniac, so when he is revealed to be a vital part of the emotional fabric of the piece, it’s a jump too far.

The production’s first half is reasonably successful in creating a pervading sense of unease. There are a couple of well executed jolts and the play’s gossamer quality is enhanced by Neil Austin’s lighting, with its shifts from soft candle light glow to cleansing dawn. A tree looms over Rae Smith’s elegantly decaying drawing room set, a thin wind dancing through its branches at all time, a symbol of the land encroaching.  But this undercurrent of upset is ramped up in the second half to the point of melodrama. Suddenly there is shouting and accusation and the brandishing of shot guns. McPherson’s initially subtle Chekhovian parallels also go into overdrive, pushed to the point of parody.

The performances are accomplished and yet there remains some difficulty in engaging with the play on an emotional level. Fenella Woolgar is composed yet distant as Lady Madeline Lambroke, and while she can be commanding, her practiced absenteeism, her “sickness of denial”, can make her come across like Lady Bertram from Mansfield Park; indeed there are times where you wonder if she hasn’t been at the laudanum herself. Peter McDonald is suitably charismatic and rakish as Fingal, but he’s saddled with a lurch in personality in the play’s later stages that doesn’t hold water, while Jim Norton is bumptious but not without charm as the interfering Berkley. He also provides some necessary levity.

At times there’s an air of anachronism to the production that’s hard to pin down. It seems to float, untethered in time. The backdrop of Ireland’s economic gloaming, and the growing threat of collapse, gives it a contemporary relevance; the séance sequence meanwhile could be read as a spot of new Romantic dabbling in the unknown, but it feels decidedly late Victorian in tone – and there are also times when the characters’ manner of expression make the world of the play feel even more recent.  In fact, in terms of atmosphere and execution it frequently brings to mind Alejandro Amenábar’s film, The Others, and there is an abiding sense that all these people are trapped in some eternal half-way space, limbo-locked on the wrong side of the mirror.

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Natasha Tripney

Natasha co-founded Exeunt in 2011 and was editor until 2016. She's now lead critic and reviews editor for The Stage, and has written about theatre and the arts for the Guardian, Time Out, the Independent, Lonely Planet and Tortoise.

The Veil Show Info


Directed by Conor McPherson

Written by Conor McPherson

Cast includes Brid Brennan, Caoilfhionn Dunne, Ursula Jones, Peter McDonald, Jim Norton, Adrian Schiller, Emily Taaffe, Fenella Woolgar

Link http://www.nationaltheatre.org.uk/

Running Time 2 hrs 35 mins (including interval)

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