My initial response to Richard Molloy’s play – set during Ireland’s historic divorce referendum – was to feel disappointed by the it’s unwillingness to dig deeper into the absurd hegemonic power of Ireland’s Catholic Church and its impact on those in loveless marriages. Instead the play felt like a straightforward kitchen sink drama, the referendum merely part of the backdrop. I wanted it to better engage with the social and political consequences of the time and felt let down when it didn’t.
Reading some of the reviews it seems other critics have felt similarly but having sat on it for a while I’ve had a chance to re-think things, and now I don’t feel quite so negatively about it. The Separation didn’t live up to my expectations, true, but I still left the theatre feeling that I had seen something worth seeing.
The Separation begins with a man and women coming in from the rain, drenched and obviously attracted to one another. The ‘let’s get out of these wet clothes’ situation borders on cliché, but this is largely made up for by the charming seduction that follows. Owen McDonnell’s Stephen Hanrahan is a grizzled, forty-something journalist, bluff, twinkly-eyed and intelligent. The object of his attention is Molly (Susan Stanley), an attractive, smart colleague with whom he has been intimate before, at a work party.
Stephen is a funny guy; he’s easy to like and trust; he seems like a decent enough bloke. But as The Separation unwinds his fragility, and violence, begin to show. Molloy is good at pacing Stephen’s unravelling, and the sudden contrasts between his humour and his startling violent outbursts is pretty dramatic; the potential is there. Roxanna Nic Liam’s portrayal of Stephen’s sixteen year old daughter is also noteworthy. She brings just right the right balance of strength and vulnerability to the role, making us appreciate the precarious position she is in.
Other aspects of the play are less convincing. The characterisation of Stephen’s wife, Marion, is weak, despite an excellent performance from Carrie Crowley. She isn’t given enough of a distinct personality to contribute meaningfully to either the atmosphere or the action of the play. The design of the family home of a successful journalist doesn’t seem right, and some of the sound design feels clunky. The frame around Amy Cook’s set is an interesting touch. The Separation is essentially a realistic play, and the frame reminds us of our voyeurism.
This brings me to the reason why I came to reject my initial feelings about Molloy’s debut. I wanted it to be a play about the Catholic Church’s influence in Ireland – an influence I don’t think we fully understand over here – but The Separation was never intending to be more than a close, gritty view of these four characters and their difficult relationships. In this regard it’s not unsuccessful.