This one-man show, both written and performed by Pat Kinevane, comes to the Abbey Theatre trailing rave reviews and awards, all wholly deserved. The Fishamble production fully lives up to the company’s reputation for sponsoring dynamic new writing charged with energy and contemporary relevance. Perhaps more than any other production on the Irish stage in the last four years, Silent sheds light on the dark shadows of recession-era Ireland.
The play commences with a spotlit dance to the strains of an antiquated film soundtrack, as a cloaked man rises beneath a huddled blanket on the street, casting off shivers of glitter from the rough, brown surface and moving with mesmeric grace through a series of Rudopho Valentino’s characteristic poses: it is a moment that captures the complex aesthetic of the play, interweaving the hypnotic and starry gestures of silent film with the grim, prosaic reality of life on the streets.
Pat Kinevane delivers an extraordinary, mercurial performance as the central character, Tino McGoldrig, a homeless man from Cork sleeping rough in Dublin, caught in a vicious cycle of depression and unemployment catalyzed by family tragedy. Summoning the celluloid screen presence of Valentino, his unusual namesake, Tino narrates the story of his younger brother Pearse’s suicide after a lifetime of homophobic persecution, and describes his own subsequent slide into homelessness and alcoholism, as he loses first his job, then his wife and son.
The silent films of Valentino seem an unlikely device through which to narrate such a tale of woe, one which could have easily descended into preciousness, but Kinevane makes stunning use of the language of gesture and melodrama, interweaving Tino’s prolix, pugnacious narration with silent mime of Pearse’s story, executed with feline grace. The play’s brilliance lies in its quicksilver alternations between tragedy and comedy, melodrama and romance. Denis Clohosey’s transporting soundscape and original compositions adroitly signal the transitions between the silent cinema episodes, flashbacks, and present action, as does the clever lighting design.
In Tino, Kinevane has created a complexly original voice, both coruscating and corrosive, tender and enraged. Tino is a desperate man, but also desperately funny, never more so than when he sashays across the stage in a savage burlesque of the preening vanity of a society lady at a charity ball, delighted with herself that she “is not now, nor ever will be a hobo,” or when he mimics the gross superficiality of the HSE’s attempts to stem the growing epidemic of mental illness through television ads admonishing viewers: “Take care of yourself, take care of your mental health.” His relation to the audience alters between adversarial aggression and moments of profound empathy, accosting individuals and eliciting uncomfortable laughter in his pursuit of repressed truths, but also gasps of pained sympathy.
As such, the play’s periodic breaking of the third wall creates an astute analogy between the relation of actor and spectators and the relation of beggar and passersby on the street, where Tino’s ‘performance’ exists in uneasy tension with his desire to retain a sense of his own dignity as a person. Both the play’s title, and its opening and closing words—“If anyone asks, I’m not here at all”—announce its intention to deal with precisely with that which is unspoken or unseen in Irish society, to reveal those people who have been marginalized and dehumanized through poverty, mental illness, or discrimination, yet it does so without ever becoming polemical or losing dramatic complexity. This captivating production is a must see.