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This marks novelist/playwright/poet Sebastian Barry’s first new play in 10 years and arrives heavily lauded from both New York and Dublin. It also marks the first West End outing for director Jim Culleton’s acclaimed company Fishamble, who have firmly established themselves as Ireland’s leading company for new writing and who tour internationally.
Barry is one of that rare group of literary writers whose work also tops bestseller lists. His rich, perfectly wrought prose is always luxuriant and often startling. Here he presents a sort of shimmering mirror to reality and in doing so gets so deep beneath the skin of the characters that he renders them unforgettable. Despite the gritty surface, his work is nowhere near naturalism.
This tells the story of two jailbirds, Christy (Niall Buggy) and PJ (David Ganly), who are thrown together in a shared cell for over twenty years. Through a series of monologues (a staple of Irish theatrical tradition) we learn the bittersweet stories of their lives and how they ended up here. Only gradually do we discover that there is an explosive connection.
Only an Irish playwright could get away with have two characters on the same stage telling you what they said to each other rather than saying it. Barry, like many Irish playwrights before him, loves the monologue too but also the power it bestows of allowing the audience to act as a confessor to the characters.
The flaw in his approach (if you want to define it as such) is that the level of eloquence, articulacy and self-awareness he gives these characters belies their rough origins. Christy has spent a hard life working on the buildings, revelling in simple pleasures rather than self-reflection and is proud to be the son of a ‘tinker’. PJ is meant to be slightly more middle class but here he seems to have more in common with the current residents of the highly gentrified south Dublin suburb of Monkstown than with the men of the era explored here.
The central premise of the piece also stretches credibility; these two wouldn’t have been dumped in the same cell, but it doesn’t matter much because Barry is not after realism. Sabine Dargent’s great impressionistic set also illustrates this perfectly. What Barry does instead is to mine these men’s souls. In doing so he makes their pain personal to us and therefore universal. The emotional honesty of the piece comes via the poetry not the dramaturgy.
Buggy, one of the greatest actors of his generation, never looks like himself in casting photos because he’s blessed with the most animated of faces, which is blank in repose. It’s a wonderful canvas on which this great intuitive actor can paint anything. He’s incapable of not being funny. In many ways he’s too animated for this gruff working-class Dub but he’s brilliant when the tenderness comes through as he recalls his murdered gay son.
Ganly, big and burly, brings great vulnerability to PJ, drawing us closer to a character who it would be difficult to forgive.
Ultimately, it’s a piece about redemption, and how that must start with honesty. There’s no better man to plough this furrow than Sebastian Barry.