Wednesday, October 22, 2014

Lyric Theatre, 'Pentecost': Historical Days in Lilliput

Director Jimmy Fay lays the symbolism a bit thick in his staging of Stewart Parker's play but its final scene is transcendent.

Lyric Theatre, Belfast
Sept 24-Oct18

My review of Pentecost by Stewart Parker coming up after the jump ...

When the lights started to flicker in homes across Northern Ireland in May 1974, it was because the Ulster Workers’ Council strike had begun to shut down the province’s electricity supply. The loyalist organisation was protesting against a legislative measure that would give the Irish government a consultative role in Northern policy. In Pentecost by the late Stewart Parker, set against this backdrop, the lamps flash but it’s with an interference that seems otherworldly. It was Parker who said that “Ghosts and plays have a lot in common”, and with director Jimmy Fay’s revival for the Lyric Theatre, we’re once again haunted by this spectre of a drama.

Widow Lily Matthews has been buried, and her declining Belfast house left to trombonist nephew Lenny (Paul Mallon), though it is his estranged wife Marian (Judith Roddy) who would like to possess it as a refuge from the fallout of their disintegrating marriage. An acute antiquarian, she preserves the Edwardian articles and discovers the spirit of the former tenant, a Protestant woman incensed by a lifetime of ethno-nationalist violence. Directing her anger against Marian for being Catholic, the rage seems consistent with a cycle of retribution. But as sectarian violence takes hold of the strike action outside, throwing Belfast into a state of emergency, the house unexpectedly becomes bunker to a dispossessed Lenny, his college acquaintance Peter (Will Irvine), who along with Marian's wife-beaten friend Ruth (Roisin Gallagher) is Protestant. Irrespective of society's divisions, a multi-denominational group of individuals gather, and at this hour the need for instruction feels more important than ever. 

The ghost of Lily Matthews is played with believable bitterness by Carol Moore. However, her introduction by Fay, with flickering lights and an ominous voice-over, is over-pronounced and comes across as a tawdry trick to scare the the audience. It's indicative of Fay's direction here to lay the symbolism of the drama a bit thick. Similarly, Roddy is a strong presence but doesn't quite reconcile the proclamatory and the realist aspects of her speech, leaving her to feel like an archetypal figure belonging to a wider poetic drama. At another pole, Gallagher's turn is overblown in earlier scenes but settles later. Irvine's idler is anything but; the actor performs knowingly and passionately, wry like the banjo that Peter strums. It is Paul Mallon who best embodies Parker's pronouncements, localising the loss and division of a city within a cynical husband, trying to sort the confusion with a voice as eloquent as his dulcet trombone.

Wherever on the spectrum between realism and symbolism that Parker's play is located, you'd be so glad that Fay finds it in time for the play's extraordinary final scene. The four characters are adrift, gathered in a room flaking and antiquated in Alyson Cummis' set design. A reading of words from the bible prompts Peter to sardonically enquire about Christ's whereabouts. But as Ciaran Bagnall's radiant lighting signals the morning sun, it cuts across the back of the stage in shafts of light that resemble the fine lines of an old Byzantine Christian painting. It is Pentecost Sunday we learn, the Feast day of when the Holy Spirit descended on the frightened disciples and gave them guidance, and the feeling here is similarly as miraculous. With Marian finally being able to talk about the trauma that caused her marriage and self to collapse, the death of a young son, her instruction unites the divided communities in an entreaty that crosses from the personal into the political: accept yourself so that you can accept others. Its artful glow is to cause complexities and divisions to melt away as a cycle of retribution might just come to an end.

What did everybody else think? 

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