Friday, October 04, 2002

REVIEW: Ariel (The Abbey, Dublin)

2002's Dublin Theatre Festival, which runs this month in the Irish capital, has few more intriguing prospects than the long-awaited return to the Abbey stage of Marina Carr. The playwright’s last outing here, By The Bog of Cats, a ravishing poetic drama, an excoriating visions of family life, full of shimmering classical resonances, announced the arrival of the mature voice of a major writer.

During the intervening four years, Carr brought her On Raferty’s Hill to Galway’s Druid Theatre and continued working on Ariel, a play she has had under way for many years. Now that that work has finally surfaced, it has, perhaps unsurprisingly, some trouble living up to expectations, not least because what Ariel has to offer looks remarkably like more of the same.

The play is, once more, set in Carr’s native midlands, a countryside ruled by lakes and their reservoirs of unsavoury secrets. We meet Ariel at her sixteenth birthday party, where her parents, Fermoy (Mark Lambert) and Frances (Ingrid Craigie) and her uncle Boniface (Barry McGovern) have all gathered for a slice of birthday cake.

Fermoy, an aspiring politician, is engaged in a viciously-contested election battle. But the squabbles of political life look like warm handshakes in comparison to his homelife, where his battles with his wife have the rancorous odour of old, old meat. By the next scene, 10 years have passed, Ariel has disappeared and Fermoy is showing off his shiny suit to the TV cameras on the eve of what looks likely to be his elevation to the head of the government.

The classical touchstone this time is Iphigenia at Aulis, the story of a leader willing to sacrifice everything – up to an including his teenage daughter – in the pursuit of power. But where By The Bog of Cats wore its learning lightly, Ariel at times becomes stymied in its attempt to touch all its antecedents plot points, turning the evening into something of a trudge.

With Carr insisting on getting so much of the original in, the integration of mythical and everyday contemporary – something of a speciality with the writer – becomes somewhat jerky. Every now and then, as though to stem the tide of literal readings among her audience, Carr seems to yell “it’s a metaphor, stupid…” at the audience, as suddenly the dead walk (and make phone calls) skulls are held aloft, enormous Stetson-baring shadows are cast and the stage begins to ooze with Kensington Gore.

Through the knifeplay, Eileen Walsh (the original Disco Pig) and Dylan Tighe, (as Ariel’s sister and brother) both newcomers here carve out sharp, exciting little spaces for themselves, making some of the old guard look more stolid than stately. Equally cutting and savvy is Caitríona Ní Mhurchú as a delicately probing TV interviewer.

Among the old order, Mark Lambert’s satanic patriarch has a suit stuffed full of warped power, even if the actor appeared to think, every now and then, that he had signed up for satire, rather than poetic tragedy.

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