Edinburgh Festival `99: Theatre Review 'The Wake'

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The Independent Culture
The Wake

King's Theatre (0131-473 2000) to Saturday

THE HOMECOMING of the weary wanderer is an archetypal pattern in world drama, from the Oresteia of Aeschylus through Eliot's The Family Reunion and Pinter's The Homecoming to the Irish dramatist Tom Murphy's latest dark comedy, . One major variant is the quantity of alcohol consumed. Eliot's characters don't exactly get plastered, but at least their abstemious bibbing takes place en famille. It's typical of the play that the family party is deferred while the homecomer scandalises the district by barricading herself in the clan's disused hotel and going on a three-day bender-cum-menage-a-trois with her brother-in-law and a former lover. Just to make sure the outside world notices, she leaves the lights on all the time.

Disrupting the traditional order of things is the order of the day in . Characters in Irish plays are, for example, supposed to escape to America, not come back as Jane Brennan's compellingly defiant, good- time yet unhappy Vera does, with a red wig and an eye-poppingly sexy wardrobe from her job as a hooker there. Then again, why did her mother leave the family hotel to this black sheep rather than to her censorious Catholic siblings? Having practically killed their grandparents to get their hands on the farm, they didn't even tell Vera that her beloved grandmother was dead until it was too late to come over for the funeral. So her mourning- ritual, necessarily private and belated, now looks set to coincide gratingly with the crude public ceremony of auctioning the hotel.

Visiting the Edinburgh Festival from Dublin's Abbey Theatre, Patrick Mason's production mordantly communicates the tensions and small- minded hypocrisies within this clan. I have doubts, though, about the staging which deposits the play in a sort of stark, ghostly dreamscape, framed by high walls. Minimalist props evoke everything from the faded splendour of the Queen Anne hotel to the frowsty domestic squalor at the home of David Herlihy's appealing Finbar who makes hilariously rough mincemeat of some of Ireland's sacred cows.

But Francis O'Connor's impressive design feels out of proportion to the proceedings, reminding you too insistently that the mythic underlies the mundane. The expert ensemble acting at the final pseudo-wake, where Irish songs and poetry recitations throw a veil of drunken conviviality over the cross-purposes and competing interests, can't quite quell the suspicion that this comic concert is an evasion of the questions raised earlier in the play. Vera, whose journey from tarty bravado to vulnerability is sensitively charted by Ms Brennan, elects to go back to America and to let her siblings have the hotel. But the decision feels under-dramatised and the morality of at once rewarding and punishing them for their greed is under-explored. So respect, but no rave for .