Monday, November 4, 2013
Abbey Theatre, 'The Hanging Gardens': Why Don't You Listen to the Story?
Abbey Theatre, Dublin Theatre Festival
Oct 9-Nov 9
My review of The Hanging Gardens by Frank McGuinness coming up just as soon as I'm better off marrying a horse chestnut ...
Either rumour or wonder, the Hanging Gardens of Babylon bloom suspiciously in the realm of speculation. They've been deemed as one of the seven wonders of the world but nobody has found them. Debate courses between scholars as to whether the gardens were an actual creation or a poetic one. Frank McGuinness's new play, however, definitely sways from reality into artifice.
A reclusive novelist sits in his garden, his memories blurred by dementia. His wife, a distinguished gardener, tries to tell him a joke but he's wary that she'll screw up the ending. Perhaps the writer is searching for a conclusion for his own wilting life as one by one he hangs his children of their lies, drawing bitter truths out of them while trying to turn them against their mother.
The role of the tyrant has been well produced in Irish theatre, and the wickedly ranged Niall Buggy always fills it with particular bile. If any other Irish actor could cauterise his performance it would be Barbara Brennan, who is wonderful here as the writer's astute wife. As for the rest of this strong cast - Cathy Belton, Marty Rea and Declan Conlon - their roles are thinly written as the children of the piece, motivated simply by bitterness towards their isolating parents and with speech more stylistic than naturalistic. As a result, McGuinness' promised portrait of the typical miscommunicative Irish family lacks authenticity and depth, and the silver bow with which he wraps up the play's conflicts is lazily tied.
In terms of artifice, The Hanging Gardens reaffirms McGuinness as one of the last Irish playwrights debuted in the twentieth century to be heavily influenced by Samuel Beckett. It fulfills certain tropes from Beckett's plays. A microcosmic sense of place, like that in Endgame, is created in set designer Michael Pavelka's blooming set - a gated garden with iconography drawn from intellectual cultures, none of which are Irish. In fact the family, who are described as outsiders in their rural Donegal community, seem banished from inheriting any sense of a local Irish heritage all together, and instead play out their existence in the imagined Babylon. In Buggy's wilting novelist we have the Beckettian figure who senses that the end is nigh and fills his remaining time with theatrics to provide meaning. His inability to remember aligns him with Estragon and Vladamir in Waiting for Godot. And in his attempts to manipulate some meaning comes the The Hanging Garden's finest moment - the telling of a story of a father who sacrifices his children to build a palace. For all the play's underwhelming dramatic power, you just don't get Irish playwriting as good as this anymore.
The Hanging Gardens continues a tradition of Irish drama which artfully locates language as the source of meaning, and the Beckettian break with when this is not the case, as the play's curious finale coneys the utter disconnect between thought and speech. Its effect is more scholarly than emotional though. Director Patrick Mason is a far cry from his groundbreaking work from decades past, and while McGuinness ticks many canonical boxes, this is not enough to hang a play on.
What did everybody else think?