Friday, October 06, 2006

REVIEW: Empress of India (The Abbey, Dublin)

Who is the aging madman striding the stage in his bed clothes, thinning white hair whipped up like a halo by his demented thrashing? Is it Hamlet or King Lear? Pozzo or Lucky? Or some charlatan channelling all of them? Who knows for sure. For Seamus Lamb (Sean McGinley) is such a distorted, mercurial character, he is equally likely to be pretending to be someone else or revealing himself.

Lamb is the central character in the second full length play from Stuart ‘Navan Man’ Carolan, the tale of an apparently mentally unwell, aging actor and his perfectly dysfunctional family, Martin (Aaron Monaghan), Matty (Tadgh Murphy) and their hovering, mute sister (Sarah Greene).

Empress of India is pretty much the last thing you might expect from Carolan, a writer with a good pedigree of creating populist entertainment. It is a difficult play in which naturalism and extreme theatrical poetry jostle for our attention, a play which demands that the audience work hard, and, when they have, offers them little in the way of conventional rewards.

Sean McGinley is an actor who does exteriors exquisitely well. He is at his best when asked to produce a surface below which an endless reservoir of emotion is suppressed. This, however, makes him something less than an ideal choice for Seamus Lamb, a character whose impact comes from his ability to move between his public face and his private pain with some agility, if not with much strategy.

No wonder the Abbey audience seemed confused. How many of them really find in their everyday lives that the uttering of an obscenity – particularly that ever-popular epithet for copulation – leaves them guffawing uncontrollably? Maybe, of course, there is something cleverer than that at play, and Carolan is simply tipping his audience off about how to react to his uncomfortable, abstract and occasionally overwrought drama.

The only unequivocally successful element here is the production design, by Druid regular, Francis O’Connor, which gives intense visual form to this family’s shattered personas. The centrepiece leaning over the action is a huge set of distorting mirrors, that also occasionally turn into a screen on which images created by the team of Evita Galanou, Ueli Nuesch and Thomas Wollenberger are projected from behind.

The switches between reflection and projection are beautifully poised, punctuating the live action and occasionally telling the part of the story. Scenes presented below the mirrored surface in particular create stunning distorted images, zooming and shrinking the actors as they move about, stylishly paralleling the anguished egos we see struggling with cosmic darkness.

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