The departure of the prodigal

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The Independent Culture
The eponymous protagonist of Marina Carr's new play The Mai responds to being left in the lurch by her cellist / composer husband by building a house by a lake in the west of Ireland in order to entice him back. The play is narrated by Millie, her teenage daughter, whose most persistent memory is watching her mother waiting in silence by the window overlooking the water outside.

The Mai, in Abbey Theatre, Dublin's production at Glasgow's Tron, opens with husband Robert's return five years later. He comes back, as he left, without explanation. While the play's central thread is this high-achieving school principal's struggle to save her marriage to a philandering partner, Carr's concerns are much broader.

The Mai's sisters, aunts and grandmother all visit in shifting combinations throughout the two years of the play's action. As the four generations of women reminisce, argue and laugh with one another, Carr paints a haunting picture of the echoing pattern of their emotional lives.

From the romantic, opium-smoking centenarian grandma Fraochlain (Joan O'Hara), through the Connemara spinster aunts Agnes and Julie (Maire Hastings and Stella McCusker), to 37-year-old waitress Beck (Brd N Neachtain), Carr's women ceaselessly pirouette in their conversations, trying to make sense of the competing demands love has made of them in all its varying forms - romantic, physical, sororal, maternal etc. Carr's modern tragicomic vision allows us to see that the presence of love can be as painful as its absence.

Brian Brady's direction conveys The Mai's shifting moods with admirable sensitivity, never allowing the purple patches of some of Millie's narration to interfere with the overall momentum of the story. Curiously, Carr never lets us as close to Olwen Fouere's proud Mai as to the other characters. She remains a powerful, symbolic enigma to the end.

With the imaginative daring of a South American novelist, the instincts of a true Celtic storyteller, and an ear for dialogue as keen as any Irish dramatist, The Mai speaks in a distinctive contemporary voice.

In the Stalls Studio at the Citizens', Robert David MacDonald's new play Persons Unknown casts a fresh eye over the historical enigma of Caspar Hauser. Having been locked away from society for the first 16 years of his life, Hauser appeared in Nuremberg in 1828 capable of speaking only the phrase "I want to be a soldier like my father". Five years later, having been adopted in succession by a professor, a pastor and a decadent English aristocrat, Hauser was stabbed to death by a stranger. MacDonald's characteristically erudite interpretation of one of Germany's best-known historical puzzles first explores the philosophical possibilities of Hauser's blank-sheet persona, and then delights in pursuing the cloak and dagger hypothesis that Hauser was the victim of a murderous aristocratic conspiracy.

Though over long in parts (the explanatory epilogue seems redundant), Persons Unknown is distinguished by some fine writing - Hauser's eyes are described as "like forget-me-nots boiled in milk". A striking central performance by Daniel Illsley, who plays Hauser as a sexually ambiguous moon-child ensures that attention is held even during the longueurs.

n 'Persons Unknown': at the Citizens' until 20 May (0141-429 0022). 'The Mai': at the Tron until tonight (0141-552 4267); then Cork Opera House, 9-17 May (0035321-270022); then touring Ireland

Richard Loup-Nolan