Friday, March 14, 2014

Abbey Theatre, 'Conservatory': Schrödinger's Cat

In Michael West's study of affectation can an elderly couple possess the truth that allows their family to move on from a dark past? Photo by Ros Kavanagh.

Abbey Theatre
Mar 12-Apr 12

My review of Conservatory by Michael West coming up just as soon as I am the poet laureate of derelict houses ...

"It's called curiosity", utters the male lead of Michael West's play, keen to investigate a mysterious sound outside his house. "It's called pneumonia", replies his wife dryly. Such is the foundation for the buzzing dialogue throughout, peppered with corrections and contestations that, while hilarious, begin to beg for answers. For this elderly couple who live alone in a house with an empty conservatory the question is: why won't their children come home?

It's night and the two are in the morning room. Unsettled by strange sounds, he starts swinging Schrödinger's thought experiment about the unknown fate of a cat in a box and its intermingling states of life and death to discern if the noises are real or imaginary. She mostly pokes holes in his statements with her sewing pins and crossword clues. However, as he reflects on the locality and the amalgamation of the local churches, there is a lament for the ties that used to bind. It provides unity, she offers. Ironically, their own bond begins to unravel with allusions to extramarital affairs and estrangement from their offspring.

Stephen Brennan and Deirdre Donnelly bounce West's deft dialogue back and forth with good measure. Brennan can stretch a bit too far to be credible at times but Donnelly, whose delivery is deadly, snaps him back like an elastic band. She never loses sight of the resentment that underlies her role. It doesn't confine her to a single note either.

Michael Barker Caven's direction, while pacing the production responsively, is sometimes flashy. It works better when more restrained. Meanwhile, a sparse set by Liam Doona is subjected to subtle illuminations by designer Kevin McFadden to evoke the ethereal atmosphere of the piece.

What's striking about West's nimble text is the leaps and bounds that it doesn't make, specifically into fancy or slight-of-hand. Every winning argument needs a fallback on science, biology or lexicology to realise it. For example, to settle arguments, the husband of the tale makes several trips to the dictionary to consult definitions. And it is only through the effect of a lengthy (and morbid) checklist of which acquaintances and family members are left alive do we ascertain the isolation of their lives.

Evidence is even required to explain emotion. During one stalemate, the wife offers an explanation for her husband's untoward sentimentality as a hardening of his arteries. Most fascinating is a memory of watching her children swim in the water with a pride described as "lodged in the back of my throat like indigestion".

"We don't understand each other, even when we know what we're talking about", says Brennan's tyrant with frustration. Such is the crux of this study of affectation, of the false display of possessing knowledge: the need for proof to determine the transforming truth. Appropriately, the most powerful moment comes not in a demonstration of emotion but a presentation of a box, its contents shaping out a sad secret.

Conservatory proves West to be an uncompromising realist who uses the laws and frequencies of the universe to bring us closer to the truth, a fascinating voice to have on the all too dormant Peacock stage. Gathering evidence all the time, his play gradually becomes transparent until giving way to the sound of rain prattling on glass and a closing image revealing a Schrödinger's box of our own, the sight inside unfurled into unmoving finality.

What did everybody else think?


  1. I thought it a stunning piece of writing and one of the slickest productions I have seen at the Peacock in a long while. It has been a wonderful ten days, I've seen four new plays..each with something to offer. Playwriting like Schrodinger's cat needs to be let out of the box on more frequent occasions if it is ever to live and breathe. This production of Conservatory is one I want to see again. Stephen and Deirdre were outstanding.

  2. I agree, Deirdre. Probably the most clever piece of new writing I've seen at the Peacock.