The Seafarer & The Birds Review

January 31, 2010

The vast set design from Rae Smith and Simon Bakers lush score for Conor McPherson’s adaptation of Daphne DuMaurier’s ‘The Birds’ sets the tone for what turns out to be another night of traditional middle class theatre at The Gate.

Set in a not to distant future, three strangers bunk down and form familial bonds as they face up to the challenges of being amongst the only humans left alive, following a series of unexplained attacks from the titular characters.

Slopping out their shit, scavenging for food and whiling away the hours between each attack the three flirt, fight and test each other’s patience as betrayal, paranoia and quiet desperation abound. The birds barely get a look in as the focus is kept on the building tension indoors.

Or at least that was the plan. For while McPherson lays the table for a family fable in a dystopian tomorrow he serves up no new food for thought in a story that fails to build credible tension or give any insights into mans relationship with nature…or himself.

Ciaran Hinds plays against type as the bumbling Nat, who rescues moody writer Diane (Sinead Cusack) from her car and the two take up residence in a not so abandoned lake house (there is a body in the attic that needs to be disposed off). Into this mix comes the nervy Julia (Denise Gough), who flits between acting like a Lolita like lush and desperate to please cherub, who shatters the cagey balance struck between Nat and Diane.

The performances are inoffensive and, at times, incredible. Darkness is a part of all three’s past yet rarely does it appear in their present. When it does, as in Ciaran Hinds’ patriarchal outbursts, you simply don’t buy it. Sinead Cusack’s shift in character towards the play’s end is equally implausible while Owen Roe’s cameo, as a menacing neighbor, is a missed opportunity, played for laughs.

McPherson, as both writer and director, has dropped the ball. His coarse language melds well with the refinement of DuMauriers to build what little tension we have, but in leaving it to the human birds rather than the feathered ones to drive the plot along he has robbed us of the atmosphere and genuine thrills of the original book and movie. There is only so much words can do, particularly when undermined by impasses in plot and a failure to properly probe the characters. And Sinead Cusack’s voice over, though helpful in giving us insights into her character and moving the story along, further hampers the fleeting moments of disquiet.

The characters, and by proxy this production, never come to life in a way that validates their creation. A pity, but given the surroundings not all that surprising.

A failure to credibly build tension seems to be a trademark of Conor McPherson’s work of late and is further seen in his revival of The Seafarer at The Abbey.

Based loosely on the legend of The Hellfire Club, it takes place in the hung-over hours between Christmas Eve and Christmas Day. It’s the story of the drunk, the very drunk and the no longer drunk who indulge in a little game of cards with the Devil. The prize, unbeknownst to most playing, is the soul of one of their group.

Back in Baldoyle after yet another failed attempt to sort his life out, Sharky (Liam Carney) is on the dry, much to the charaign of his recently blinded brother, Richard (Maeloise Stafford). They are joined by Ivan(an unrecognisable Don Wycherly), in hiding after ruining Christmas for the kids-again, and Nicky Giblin(Phelim Drew), substitute father and lover to Sharky’s ex wife and children. With the mysterious Mr. Lockhart (Nick Dunning) completing the group the stage is set for a night of high spirits and high jinks.

Pity then that the cast haven’t put their trust in McPherson’s words, choosing instead to go for the comical jugular on every possible occasion. For a tale of two brothers beaten, but not broken, by the demon drink, little time is spent on credibly creating a relationship between Sharky and Richard. Stafford remains in a state of perpetual farce, bringing not one drop of subtlety to the role, which weakens the softer moments in the plays final act. Carney is better as his dogs body of a brother, realistically shifting gears and creating a true, Dublin character, as opposed to Stafford’s affected gentleman drunk of a caricature. While Drew and Wycherley are on fine, if typical, form, stumbling and bumbling about the stage like the arse of a panto cow.

Dunning, as the devilish Mr. Lockhart, is the only new face in this production and is also its weakest. He seems unsure of himself when he attempts to taunt and torment Sharkey and never owns the room in the way an actor playing Satan should. He is given a gift horse of a monologue, about gods love for man, which he looks squarely in the mouth, ranting, raving and reducing McPherson’s words to piffle. While his equine like mannerisms come and go like the thunder claps outside.

The shows tender, exploratory, moments are rushed over so we can jump from one profanity laced gag to the next and when violence erupts, it’s played for shits and giggles. The quieter, darker moments glossed over and extinguished by bombast.

It’s a pity McPhersons keen observational eye and theological insights aren’t given the same loving attention lavished on his irascible humor. Judging by The Abbey’s ecstatic first night faces I’m alone in thinking that by sacrificing debt for drollery he has done a serious disservice to his script. But considering his recent misfire with The Birds, he may want to get some directorial distance from his own work if it is ever to translate from page to stage.


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