Struggling to gain a foothold

Theatre: After Easter; Barbican,London
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The Independent Culture
At the heart of Anne Devlin's play After Easter is a simple and strong story about a woman coming to terms with herself. When we meet her, Greta, a Belfast-born Catholic woman, has lived for 15 years in England, is married to an English Marxist historian and is bringing up her children as Protestants. The discovery that her husband is having an affair has precipitated an identity crisis, and helped bring to the surface all the parts of herself and her past that she has buried.

Tormented by religious visions, she has been committed to a psychiatric hospital, which is where we first find her. But when her sisters take her home to Belfast to visit her dying father, she goes through a rebirth and begins peeling away the forces that have shaped her.

So far, so good. And you are gripped by her story. But Greta clearly carries far more than her own personal history. Through her character, Devlin tackles enormous themes: political, spiritual and psychological. She worries at the relations between religion and sexuality, between politics and personality, and at concepts of self-determination. She tackles the problem of redefining spiritual and national identity in a land where both are muddied by history. She discusses women, contrasting the lives of Greta, her mother and her two sisters, all of whom have suppressed a part of themselves.

The title of the play turns on the double significance of Easter in Ireland, while the reconciliation with herself that Greta undergoes seems to symbolise a greater search for rebirth and healing in a scarred country. Greta has a visionary depth that has no place in modern society but that turns her into a sort of spiritual lightning conductor. When she witnesses a strange spirit, one sister thinks it is her tired mind playing tricks, the other thinks it is a banshee, but for Greta "it is the whole of Ireland crying out to me".

In a way, Greta has the same drawback as the play: she takes on too many woes at once. It is a rich, complex and unsettling piece, but also muddling and unsatisfying. The themes do not come seeping through the play but seem strapped on, and you ricochet from one idea to another. Threads are picked up and dropped summarily - bold writing; irritating watching. And some of Greta's speeches are extremely hard to swallow.

A few of the other women characters are so skimpily drawn they seem just ciphers, particularly Helen, the money-making sister. Better are the pragmatic, tough mother (Doreen Hepburn) and Aoife, the stay-at-home sister (Ann Hasson). Much of the best funny writing is around Aoife - comic lines that leaven the play and make sharp points.

The production, directed by Michael Attenborough, is carried by a wonderful performance from Stella Gonet, who manages to give Greta both a tortured vitality and luminous beauty, and the play certainly tackles pressing issues. But its very boldness is self-defeating; it leaves you struggling to gain a foothold, slithering around a mountain of ideas.

n In the RSC's repertory at the Pit, Barbican, London EC2 (0171-638 4141)

Sarah Hemming