Two Contemporary Irish Plays

Theatre Reviews by Frances Devlin-Glass

In addition to a production of The Importance of being Earnest, at Williamstown Little Theatre, this week has had on offer the Australian premiere of Chancers by Robert Massey (first performed in Dublin in 2013) at Brighton Theatre Company (directed by Peter Newling), and Solas, by Diane Stubbings, directed by Lynda Fleming,  a play about Lucia Joyce, which opened on 23 February at La Mama.  I look forward to seeing that next week.

Chancers was new to me and a delight from top to toe. Set in a down-at-heel convenience store in Milltown (Co Kildare) on the verge of bankruptcy, Massey’s play offers a sharp-minded analysis of the rapid social changes ushered in by the sudden death of the previously rampant Celtic Tiger in post-Global-Financial-Crisis Ireland. It’s a four-hander and very deft in sketching a collision between a previously universally acknowledged and adhered to social and moral order and the new spirit of grubby materialism which saw the spoils go to the ‘haves’ while the ‘have-nots’ are left to interrogate the uses of their morality and to take defensive action they’d never have contemplated before the crisis. It dramatized the disintegration of social cohesion and a new brash spirit of all-for-self.

Costumes (Annie Blood) did a fine job in establishing the types: a Father Dougal look-alike and sound-alike, Mark Briggs, played the morally conventional, almost skint convenience store proprietor, and wore a very daggy grandfather vest in a brown fairisle pattern, while his amoral nemesis, the volatile JP, sported a loud shirt (not quite an Aloha islander shirt, but a first cousin to it), and their inflammatory dialogue was superbly pacey. Sass Pinci as the pregnant wife who is just that bit too old to impress the recruiters, youths who belong to the developer class, was also credible as the object of a sex addict’s attention in the smaller orbit of the country town. Carol Shelbourn as the dowager wealthy profiteer from land speculation, who defied what others might think of her, was very daggy in ill-assorted brown stripe skirt and green plaid jacket and brown ankle socks in white/beige runners. She was an unlikely ’chancer’, one who’d made money in land speculation and been hardened by the experience, but who still retained her role as community gossip. a repository of the town’s secrets.

The twists and turns in the plot were well prepared for, and the revelations about a collapsing centre came thick and fast. The beggar outside the door of the shop was alluded to often, and an ever-present reminder of what such an economic collapse can mean. One expected her to be significant in the plot, but the symbolism was enough. As well, it was a period of mass emigration and this movement out is described as being a way of validating the damaged self, so severe was the impact of this recession on individuals’ sense of self-worth.

This play takes its bearings from the Irish tradition of tragi-comedy, and puts realism and comedy to serious uses, and I was impressed by how the argument served to help the audience understand how this collision of values could have become an avalanche in the period of the GFC and its aftermath (you will remember that the EU’s sanctions on Ireland and Greece imposed terrible hardships on those communities). One could easily grasp just why JP and Dee, the under-employed could deeply resent that those developers and bankers who profited from the lack of ethics in lending 100% of mortgages to people who could ill afford to take them, or who built housing estates that no-one lived in, and got away scot-free, or even profited further. It’s a gently provocative play, and the final twist was delicious. Another issue which got airplay was the late arrival in the Irish context of woman-power, and the play invites us to see this as another ground-shaking social change ushered in quickly and destabilising a male-dominated culture. The way in which Church authority was undermined in this period, often by dint of the stance taken up by women, was perhaps another unstated subtext. The play celebrates the debate and foregrounds it.

The performances elicited by director Peter Newling were nuanced and utterly credible. The two young men were superb foils, not only in the way they were costumed, but in their body language, the one stolid and anguished but tempted, and the other who had been pushed to the edge and beyond. He’d also discovered the adrenalin rush of petty crime and was jumping out of his skin. Gesturally and in terms of how they moved, these men worked well together.  The wife, prepared to be independent but foiled by the amoral white-shoe brigade in their twenties, was surprising in her twists and turns. She had changed hands as a lover between the men, and her personal circumstances had altered again, so the tensions aroused between the two main characters were palpable throughout and made for some very intriguing plot-shifts. We were watching people become worse versions of themselves in response to privation and severe economic hardship. I expect that Covid might provide similar plots in the future.

This play has another week to run at Brighton, and I’d certainly urge people interested in the economic history of Ireland post GFC to see it.  It’s very entertaining and thought-provoking.

Two plays on Irish subjects reviewed.

Solas at La Mama

Solas by Diane Stubbings, directed by Lynda Fleming at La Mama, 2 March 2022

Diane Stubbings’ play, Solas (Irish for light just as Lucia is Italian for the same word), tells the story of James Joyce’s daughter Lucia’s one and only visit to Bray in the summer of 1935. She was nominally in the charge of Joyce’s benefactor, Harriet Shaw Weaver, on whom the responsibility for the over-the-top behaviour of the daughter weighed heavily. Weaver is referred to in the play but is not a character in it, and this two-hander focussed on the contrast between the bourgeois Dubliner, ‘B’ (Lucia’s cousin Boschenka in real life) in Stubbing’s script and the cosmopolite ‘L’, the Parisian dancer and daughter of an increasingly famous father. Although Stubbings does not identify ‘L’ as Lucia Joyce, the biographical details are so close and the Joycean allusions to Joyce’s fictions so thick and pointed, that for clarity’s sake in this review, I will so identify her, as is the director’s practice in the programme notes.  

The reason for the sojourn in Bray was that Lucia had recently clobbered her mother with a chair, and Joyce needed to find a way to calm and defuse a fraught child and a fractious dysfunctional family. Nora was cast as bad cop in conflict with the overly indulgent father in most earlier male versions of the biographies. This version of the story, influenced by Carol Loeb Shloss’s biography, Lucia Joyce: To Dance in the Wake, gives the daughter a voice and a set of reasons for her pain and existential angst, and her transgressive acts (stripping naked, setting fire to a room and painting it black, in this version with the ashes of her father’s letters to her). The failure of her romance with Beckett is part of her pain, but more significant is the investigation the playwright offers of what it is to be the daughter of a celebrity, to have inherited some of the same creative genius, and to have been thwarted in bringing her own creativity to fruition. To further complicate the story, and there is evidence in Joyce’s writing (especially Finnegans Wake) of this, the daughter angrily accuses the father of cannibalising her experience of the world, in all its creative dissonance, for his own fiction to add to his own literary prestige.

In its focus on the relatively brief visit to her cousins in Bray, the play chooses a single episode in the life of Lucia which is very intense and revealing. We are first introduced to her as a young dancer (played with power and passion by Tenielle Thompson) who inhabits her body in ways that are very foreign to the quotidian, repressed ‘B’ (played engagingly by Mariska Murphy). B is forced by her cousin into postures that are uncomfortably reminiscent of the hectoring of the estranged mother and Harriet Shaw Weaver. The tension amps up when Lucia exploits her insights into her cousin’s formation as a conventional Dubliner via a role-reversal game she had previously played with her brother. She dissects the innocent B with the probing cruelty of a satirist. It is a funny scene, for all its savagery.

There is little hope that B can meet her cousin even part of the way, so it is touching when she does begin to understand her and tenderly helps her to dress. This is the more moving because by this stage, B knows that Lucia has taken on the role of initiating her boyfriend, an innocent Dublin altar-boy, into the ways of adult sex, learned by eavesdropping on her frank and libertarian parents’ sexual encounters and confidences. The play builds brilliantly to this climax.

This is a Joyce-rich and knowing play in which Lucia is represented (following Shloss) as being the inspiration for many of Joyce’s female characters (in particular Milly and Gerty), with several clues and hints dropped along the way. There is little doubt that Lucia, cosmopolite, multi-lingual, and reveller in disjointed and inventive uses of language, informs Finnegans Wake

Diane Stubbings in viewing the family drama through the point of view of Lucia is deliberately hard on Joyce. He is the casualty in her (legitimate) feminist project of giving Lucia a voice, and one can easily understand why the author is drawn to this tragic story. Because of her unconventional, unladylike behaviour, Lucia would subsequently have to bear the appalling burden of being deemed and treated as insane, and, after Joyce’s death, she was incarcerated in a lunatic asylum in Northhampton. Her mother never visited her in the 10 years more she had of life. I for one find Nora’s neglect of her incomprehensible, and one can only assume (as was the case with Violet Gibson consigned by her Merrion Square family to the same institution – they overlapped briefly and are buried side by side) that both families were advised for the patients’ good, to engage in this kind of cruel silencing of vivid women. The play unequivocally blames Joyce, but the family drama seems to me to have been more complex.

Some of the allusions to the ways in which Lucia inspires Joyce’s fiction are clever. The audience is brought up to speed with Lucia’s unreciprocated infatuation with Beckett, the trigger for a severe bout of mental illness, via an interrogation reminiscent of the Ithaca chapter of Ulysses, and also of Beckett’s clinical dissection of misfiring dialogue between characters who cannot meaningfully relate. Since Shloss’s biography, there has been much interest in Lucia, and much of it has laid the blame at her father’s feet. Jung perhaps began the trend when he unsuccessfully attempted to treat Lucia. Because of poverty in their childhood, Georgio and Lucia lived at very close quarters to their non-conformist parents, and the cost of a commitment to uncompromising honesty about sexuality seems to be a subtext of this play and in another recent biographical play about dysfunction in the Joyce family, Calico by Michael Hastings.

This is beautifully paced and staged theatre, designed to challenge and move, and it is intensely and evocatively poetic. It is simply staged, gorgeously dressed, and emotionally lit (by Shane Grant) and it feels like a privilege to be in the intimate space at La Mama with this tortured woman. The play has been a child of Covid and many times postponed. The care and commitment lavished on it by director Lynda Fleming, a Dubliner, and actors Tenielle Thompson and Mariska Murphy, are palpable. It’s a cracker of a show, even if it’s disturbing and challenging.

Frances Devlin-Glass

Frances is a Joycean, and a founder of Bloomsday in Melbourne. She has reviewed theatre in Melbourne since the early 1980s.