Friday, October 03, 2003

REVIEW: Sharon's Grave (The Olympia, Dublin)

Evil is gathering around the homestead of the Conlees, seeping in through the cracks and under the doors as irresistibly as the emerald fog that swiftly follows everyone who enters.

Gary Hynes has followed up to her intense, revelatory version of John B. Keane’s Sive with another 1950s drama from the Kerry playwright in which an Irish farmhouse is besieged, apparently, by the wickedness of the universe made terrible flesh.

And wouldn’t you know it, that personification of evil, that indictment of the human race turns out to be an irresistibly attractive character. Frankie McCafferty’s take on Dinzie Conlee, the vicious “humpback ferret from Hell” forced by paralysis to mount his brother’s back to get about, is an extraordinary, warped and energetic performance that like it or not, forms the human heart of the play.

Ostensibly we are peeking in at the lives of Trassie (Catherine Walsh) her “touched” brother, Neelus (Tom Vaughan-Lawlor) and Peader (David Herlihy) the thatcher who comes to patch up their lives in a number of ways. But the play cannot help but revolve around McCafferty’s Dinzie, a “cripple” whose mind is every bit as broken as his body, and who wishes no man well.

For all the liquid malevolence that flushes around the stage (and there is enough here to run your average slasher movie) the comic elements are perhaps played more broadly than before in Hynes work, with plenty of slapstick caricature and site gags. It is something of a surprise to see the director making these kinds of choices, but the search here seems to be for something unexpected.

Keane saw his play as an unsubtle struggled between good and evil and Hynes’ appears happy to follow his lead, creating a graphic exaggeration that looks to Victorian-style shock, rather than modern ambivalence. The result is an almost antique style of popular theatre, one that happily incorporates everything from limelight colouring to a follow-spot trained on Tom Hickey’s crooked shaman, Pats Bo Bwee. McCafferty’s Dinzie doesn’t pause for the audience to hiss on his entrance, but it would not have been a total surprise if he had.

But Sharon’s Grave is not as exquisitely controlled as Sive, and consequently the production has to work harder. Hynes, knows as much about handling – and rewarding – the audience as she does about eliciting blockbuster performances (which is a great deal!) but the weaknesses in Keane’s play mean that it was always going to be a struggle not to leave the gods a little less than satisfied with their evening at the Conlees.

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