The House at the Abbey Theatre

October 24, 2013

Twelve years on and The House is back on the Abbey Stage, the national theatre’s contribution to Murphypolooza, a summer of plays from the man many consider this country’s greatest living playwright. The House was initially meant for inclusion with DruidMurphy but instead it is given a powerful and emotionally fluid staging by Annabelle Comyn, which, though not flawless, contains three of the finest performances I have seen on the stage of late.

It’s the summertime and the emigrants have returned – cursing, crooning and carousing, they’ve got the backs up of official Ireland, who pray for their souls at Mass each week, while themselves indulging in blackballing and backhanders. Among the Diaspora are Christy (Conlon) and Susanne (Walker), the ‘like a son’ and actual daughter of Eleanor Methven’s Mrs. DeBurca. She’s upping sticks and moving in with her eldest, Marie (Belton), selling the house she called a home after the death of her husband. Christy’s questionable riches may provide the salvation she craves but his darker nature has a combustive effect on the women of the house so that he eventually destroys the thing he loves.

Taking Murphy’s eye for detail and ear for vivacious vernacular, Comyn’s production is a study in restraint, where the natural relevance between their time and ours is aloud to breathe without wheezing from self-importance. The playing, with some noted exceptions, capture the natural confliction that comes with being an emigrant, a parent or a pillar of society without resorting to hamming up the inherent stereotype. While the seething acceptance of a town, country and economy run on favours gets straight to the nature of the Irish man, the eventual release – be it sex, drink or fisty cuffs, showcasing the effect the suppression of a country has on the psyche.

Declan Conlon is magnificent, a chameleon of character, whose changes in nature barely register a change of intonation, chilling and confusing us instead of arming us with handy condemnations. In crucial confrontations with Mrs. DeBurca and then Lorcan Cranitch’s solicitor Kerrigan, the words are almost dragged out of him so that when they fail him the audience keenly feels his distress.

Methven is astonishing also. Her wonderfully dismissive yet empathetic treatment of her daughters, particularly the troubled Louise (McCann), is one of the most subtly affecting things I have seen at the National Theatre or any stage. While her exchanges with the deeply affecting Belton, often wordless – a look, a nod, sew the seed of familial content, making the later events all the more tragic. The way both women register the unintentional cruelty of Darragh Kelly’s excellent (if John Olohan aping) Bunty – or later snubs by Christy, charges the play with an ache that won’t quit.

Comyn is not afraid to let the play lapse into silence and it is in these pauses that her marvelous performers (Cranitch’s ability to express both hurt and disgust at the same time as the overriding anger is another highlight) get right to the heart of what this play is about. It is here that a sense of dislocation lies, here that the sands of time take root and it is from here that the loss and desire for a sense of identity emerges.

As I said, it’s not perfect. The length of the scene changes (often over a minute long with a jarring repetitive score) deadens the pace while the groundwork just isn’t laid for certain characters for them to be effective. Frank Laverty overly subdues his desire to impress that his family are converted Catholics so that while his later drunken outburst about his sullied reputation is well executed, the over all performance suffers from a lack of desperation. Walker meanwhile is TOO languid, too caricatured, in the crucial scenes with her mother and Christy, for us to get a sense of what is fractured beneath.

But, for the most part, this is a powerful production, anchored around three stunning performances that never feel laboured or forced, trite, tired or tested. Without a doubt the most moving and effective piece of work at the National Theatre in the past three years


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