Brian Friel: What's the question?

THEATRE Give Me Your Answer, Do Abbey Theatre, Dublin
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Something of a serpent with its tail in its mouth, Brian Friel's wambling new play, Give Me Your Answer, Do, is a curiously self-conscious piece about a bankrupt, elderly Irish art-novelist, Tom Connolly (Tom Hickey). Mystically prodded through a wine-drunk afternoon by his wife, Daisy (Catherine Byrne), he quixotically evades the issue of whether to sell his manuscripts - including personal, never published work- to the agent (Darragh Kelly) of a Texas university, or whether to face the nightmare of a blank page.

One wonders, after Dancing at Lughnasa, whether this is a dilemma that really ails Friel. What seems more at stake in this drifting, fragmented, self-indulgent script is the plight of a "serious" writer, fighting against the constraints of past success.

Opening and closing with the strangest and most unexplained shadow over all the proceedings - Connolly's mute daughter, Bridget (Pauline Hutton), a drooling, cross-eyed sanatorium patient receiving electroshock treatment for an unspecified "nervous" ailment - the play wallows in the bleak, dignity-crumbling effects of age on three inveterate couples; here converging on a Scrabble-and-alcohol afternoon on a sunlit lawn.

The Connollys, at the end of the day, emerge as the sanest of the lot. Daisy's parents are Jack (David Kelly), a dandified, pathetically kleptomaniac cocktail pianist; and Maggie (Aideen O'Kelly), a self-deluding, chair- bound, arthritic, retired doctor. Enter the over-the-top frivolity of Tom's best friend and chief rival - the popular novelist, Garret Fitzmaurice (Des McAleer) - and his acidly vivacious middle-class wife, Grainne (Frances Tomelty). Like all the women, her vivid button eyes constantly strip her husband of the least temporary arrogation of self-respect.

What emerges from the icily savage, glancing encounters is a cruel and depressing depiction of the ageing, upper-bohemian, Irish drinking classes. Friel's constant theme of post-colonial decay is heavily overstated in Frank Hallinan Flood's set. But there is something unbridled in Friel's portraits of dissembling rival-writers; despicable agent-creatures, talking "ugly money"; and, most crucially, the indolent parasitic wives - vicariously withering every inch of their husbands' ineffectual hopes.

Maybe it's meant as a paean to their lot - but this is a deliberately inconclusive piece of writing; marooned somewhere between memory and confused contemporaneity. No matter how closely you follow the will-o'-the-wisp of Friel's substantial intelligence, it's very difficult to run the more disturbing elements to ground. And yet, the show delivers quite a number of emotional stabs - often preserved in a nostalgic waft of, say, Mendelssohn or Fats Waller.

Directed by Friel himself, this show has some serious longueurs and off-notes. It might have worked better with the interpretative counterpoint of another director, but Friel's fetishistic attention to his own text does worm its way uncomfortably into some private recess of your mind.

Mic Moroney