Dick Walsh has nerve. Audiences in Galway and Dublin will remember his performance a few years ago in Dreams of Love – a post-dramatic playing of passion on stylised surfaces – as a misogynistic king who sat onstage for several minutes doing nothing but devouring a sandwich. His hold on the audience, for what felt like a lifetime, while gobbling every crumb has been somewhat remembered as a moment of performance art terrorism.
If his outsider status has since been confirmed by absurdist anecdotal plays a dangerman and Some Baffling Monster, the provocative form and contemporary feel seems to have become a draw for director Gavin Quinn of the avant garde company Pan Pan. In their adaptation of The Seagull last year, he fittingly cast Walsh as Konstantin, a playwright who rejects traditional presentation.
Walsh’s new play for the company is modelled on an episode from Tolstoy’s War and Peace, that of the princess Marya who has to choose between her domineering father and a suspicious suitor. The action is relocated to an Irish setting, with the princess as an unemployed college dropout.
There is a stunning banality from the outset, an opening scene where a rummage through a phonebook feels epic. Aonghus (Des Nealon) rages at a fall-through in his business dealings while his daughter Marya looks out towards the audience in Annabell Rickerby’s curious stare, contemplating life in contemporary colloquialisms (“Like, I don’t know … y’know?”). With Vincent Doherty’s sound design droning astonishingly overhead, there is something momentous suggested in the minutiae of life.
Rickerby is fascinating to watch, convincingly guileless and strangely numb. Where the neutral postures of Walsh’s previous plays rigidly conspired for Brechtian effect, here the distancing is well guided by Quinn to have us consider the anaesthetised reality of unemployment and dependency. That Rickerby maintains her sly gaze towards the audience throughout suggests that society is accountable.
Marya is encouraged to apply for a job in Brussels by her friend Katie, played by Una McKevitt, who is similarly artless on the surface. McKevitt’s irreverence for dramatic acting bespeaks a nerveless performer, speaking lines that sound insincere, unafraid of long pauses over the drags of her e-cigarette. Comparatively, Quinn and Walsh seem content to allow Nealon to act in a more mimetic mode as a tyrannical father lording over his house. Disturbing gestures are boldly made, showing signs of a casual misogyny and sadism in domestic spheres.
That Marya’s escape rests in the hands of businessman, played with conscious superficiality by Walsh himself, doesn’t offer all that better an alternative. While she muses on the phoney posturing of careerism, Katie drunkenly stumbles towards him seeking affection; Marya isn’t even destined to get the boy.
Most intriguingly, there appears to be a tension in dramatic representation here. Against the violent red wall of Aedín Cosgrove’s set there’s a struggle to put shape on figures, a nervousness attributed to by costume designer Grace O’Hara’s garish wardrobe of jungle-print blazers and leopard leggings. It all amounts to a fate, the logic of which is impossible.