Freefall @ The Abbey Theatre
December 2, 2010
I feel like I’ve missed the boat when it comes to Corn Exchange’s Freefall, currently being revived at the Abbey Theatre. 14 months after its first run at the Project Arts Centre it’s not that it has dated. In fact, given that it deals with personal, physical and fiscal decline its more relevant than ever. But watching a company who have been reassembled since going off to work on other things is a very different experience to watching one that has spent over a year devising and eight solid weeks rehearsing a piece before feeding off its ravenous reception. That being said virgin eyes will still find Freefall a wonderful, well thought out piece of theatre that is at times cinematic, often unusual but always challenging and involving. It just might not shimmer the way you’d hoped.
Upon the dissolution of his marriage, a man suffers a massive stroke. As memories from his recent and not so recent past meld with attempts to revive him Annie Ryan’s meta-theatrical production erupts into life with the cast creating their own sound effects and utilising the minimal props to create this ever-changing world. Hospital gurneys double as dinner tables, plastic curtains divvy up rooms and states of consciousness while actors slide between parts as time folds in on itself, all while A’s (Andrew Bennet) world frantically winds down.
As we desperately try to figure out the intricacies of Michael West’s script (is he talking about the character’s health? His marriage? Dry rot?) we experience a parallel to what A is going through as he wanders, pajama clad, through the fractured fragments of his mind, trying to find meaning in what has gone before.
Starting at the dinner party from hell we meet his horrible yet human wife (Janet Moran) whose sad meanness is the product of a life felt wasted; his cousin Dennis (Declan Conlon replacing Louis Lovett) a begrudging, ignoramus prone to casual and sometimes blatant cruelty- and Dennis’ girlfriend (Ruth McGill) a clingy, desperate crutch who just wants to be loved. Each character could reflect a worldview of our nation.
Moving back through time we meet his kindly Aunt (McGill again) caught between doing what’s right for her and honoring her responsibilities; his less that loving uncle (Damien Kearney) who rants about being let go by Ford while trying to get his wife to let go of their foster son and a handy man (Kearney) who seems to be the perpetual bearer of bad news, a dodgy, foreign intonation in his accent.
It is as a state of a nation play that Freefall works best, firmly capturing (or at the time of writing, predicting?) the national mood. Orphaned at a young age A has enveloped a sadness that stems from being unloved. First by his father, then by his uncle and cousin and finally by his wife. He contaminates all around him with his desperation and his unwillingness to let sleeping dogs lie so that people have to pull away from him to save themselves. The characters capture the utter sense of hopelessness we’ve all felt in the past few weeks, the shame, the anger and sense of doom and they don’t play hard and fast with the answers. We have to figure that out for ourselves.
It is well acted (particularly by McGill and Conlon-though I long to have seen Lovett in said role) and lovingly directed, with Ryan making the many changes seem effortless and painless creatively setting up scenes so they could be revisited with little effort later. She creates much with little and the ensemble playing is the best defense against attacks on the company structure.
Much of the intimacy is lost in the transfer from the Project to The National Theatre however, causing most damage to the tiny cameras used to show A’s stroke-addled view of the world. We just don’t get a sense of panic or paralysis. I also found it hard to feel for A, in spite of Bennett’s sensitive portrayal, due to an incestual sub plot that felt forced and, for me, was the straw that broke an utterly miserable camels back. He has been shit upon by life so often you almost want to pull the plug yourself or at the very least, flee from him like everyone else.
“Pain is a reality. Suffering is something we do to ourselves”. In doing so well in showing the averageness of his memories, quite how much Michael West makes A suffer is a little bit disappointing and the teensiest bit disingenuous. There seems to be little light in his life beyond his boy. For me, if he had more to live for, the actual scenes in the hospital, his struggle for survival would be all the more devastating.
What can’t be escaped is that Corn Exchange have created a dexterous piece of theatre that can be tucked into by a variety of viewers with a series of differing needs-both emotional and theatrical-and each will come away in some way satisfied.