Saturday, June 21, 2003

REVIEW: Crestfall (The Gate, Dublin)

It’s your business to duck if things get messy in Mark O’Rowe’s fierce dramas of underclass Irish life, because this author certainly won’t be watching out for the sensibilities of the squeamish element. O’Rowe cannot – constitutionally it seems – offer his audience anything but blood, sweat and whatever other bodily fluids happen to spill, seep, bubble and gush from his stories.

All the same, he might expect to sidestep characterisation as a macho writer in this drama told via monologues by three women, with no male help. The monologues wind around each other much in the manner of the monologues in O’Rowe’s calling card show, Howie The Rookie. A tiny detail in one becomes a focal point in the next, until the story of one bloody day in the town of Crestfall crawls into view from just outside our peripheral vision.

The sub-bass rumbles a warning and the lights come up on Francis O’Connor’s strange, splattered mirror-box of a stage to reveal Olive (Aisling O’Sullivan) who begins to speak in a strange, heavily accented patter, unfurling a life of cold sex and brutality.

Soon afterwards, she is replaced by Alison (Marie Mullen) who witnesses many of the same events, though with a little more distance, before giving up the stage to the tale of Tilly (Eileen Walsh) who has had a bad day, even by the standards of a penniless, heroin-addicted prostitute.

The writing has a poetic bent that ought to sound self-conscious, but in these sure hands nothing of the sort occurs. It comes across, however, vaguely like what might result if Dylan Thomas were to land a screenwriting job on a remake of The Wild Bunch. Language is clipped. Two-word sentences. One even. Skips the pronouns. Timewasting.

O’Rowe’s women have the curt morality of Hemmingway big game hunters. In the end, everything is about stepping up, or wimping out and living life as the omega male. Animal metaphors, indeed, dominate: sometimes Crestfall seems more like a game reserve than a housing estate.

Garry Hynes production is one of the director’s more elliptical, plush in certain aspects (such as Paul Arditti’s brilliantly limpid electro-soundscapes) and almost evasive in others. It leaves the words and the performances to do all the work -- and nowhere for the actors to hide if things get shaky.

O’Sullivan meets the challenge with an outstanding performance, ricocheting dangerously around on her stilettos. Mullen’s work is mildly blunted by a sense that her character is not bound to the story tightly enough, while Walsh’s Tilly is a destabilising, but fully realised heart of this uncomfortable and grimly fascinating piece.

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