How pleasant to be in the Abbey two nights after what was doubtless the supportive hysteria of the opening of a new play by Donegal writer Frank McGuinness. Without the presence of the Dublin cultural glitterati the atmosphere is calm, watchful, neutral; with notes of benign indifference.
For there’s little to get excited about in the new play. And I confess now, I’m unable to compare it with McGuinness’ previous work, judiciously bedding it down within his oeuvre, because apart from his last few adaptations, I’ve seen none of his work on stage. But then it’s often preferable to judge a work on its own merits, in isolation.
One reason for the play’s dearth of arousal power is the fact of its incestuousness. There’s no hint of sibling amourousness or oedipal overtones, it’s simply that the action has no repercussions beyond the wobbly family circle of the Grants. Sam Grant is a successful but reclusive novelist in the borderlands of dementia, his wife Jane is a renowned horticulturalist whose gardening books have sold as well as Sam’s novels. Their eldest son Charlie has lived with them all his life and is now “a beast of burden” looking after the old man. The younger son Maurice, a gay philosophy teacher, with his sister Jane, a barrister who has gotten herself pregnant, are home for a few days.
While the two younger children have good relations there’s no love lost between them and their elder brother. There’s a temperamental divide exacerbated by the question of inheritance. Charlie is adamant his long service to Sam and Jane deserves the largest slice of the family pie. But the younger pair are in need of money too. But despite these hungry mouths there’s no real urgency surrounding who’s going to get what, there’s plenty of cash to go round, and even if McGuinness had written in more desperation, money and property changing hands within another middle-class family is of little interest. The more immediate problem is Sam’s dementia. Is he or isn’t he on a nose-dive into Alzheimer’s?
The suspense around this question is developed satisfyingly enough in the first three scenes, with Sam, apparently in his right mind, telling each of the children in turn things about their mother which indicate that it’s her who’s ill. But then, with scene four, the early evening of the day on which all the action occurs, suddenly there’s no question, it’s Sam who needs treatment. Even Charlie, apparently convinced earlier by what Sam told him his mother did to him when he was a child, and which prompted a new understanding between father and son, now acts as if the issue of his father’s dementia was never in doubt. Later in the evening the whole family are sitting around the father, united, singing old songs.
It’s not only the suspense which collapses, the three children, their problems and attitudes gradually made apparent, and with a light touch, are suddenly crunched flat. Charlie suddenly strides on in scene four, to Jane with “the stride of a man who knows where exactly he’s going” (and we can only hope her books are well edited grammatically) and demands his share, “what’s owed to me. That’s what I want – what I demand.” But he doesn’t demand it for long, within a couple of minutes Jane is chucking him under the chin and he now diverts his sluggish fire to Rachel and her lack of affection for him.
Despite the presence of some of Ireland’s best actors as the children there’s really nothing in the roles for them to get their teeth into. Declan Conlon’s trademark presence and authority are entirely wasted. Charlie’s a glum character and Conlon certainly looks it. Marty Rea’s usually scintillating energy is similarly muted by his downcast hands-in-trouser-pockets role. Cathy Belton has a little more to play with in the shape of her three month high bump and the smiling amorality that went into its conception but she too is just too big for the part. Barbara Brennan is very much at home as Jane, but then perhaps The Grand Dame of Irish Theatre is at home in all the roles she plays, reducing them, or rather here, plumping them out, to the same shapelessly comfortable level.
Sam is the only one whose roots go down through the play’s thin dramatic topsoil to brush elemental clay and Niall Buggy has its small store of depth all to himself. An acerbic, straight-talker who has contempt for pity, Sam gets none from us, and we really don’t care whether he becomes irrecoverably demented or hangs himself from one of the garden’s trees. Perhaps because his demented episodes have such a remote literary quality that we remain so unmoved, his dementia is even enviable, as he sits on the grass admiring the birds or worships the rain. Certainly the fact that his family are such thin characters, showing no real emotion themselves doesn’t help.
Very self-consciously contrived, with a glaring excess of obvious expository dialogue, the three children of the master of ‘Babylon’ – what else could you call the house within the Hanging Gardens? – badly underwritten, the play at least has the virtue of not, like most new Irish plays surfacing around now in the long run-up to the centenary of 1916, indulging in a fruitless quest for the nature of ‘Irish Identity.’