In his book Darwin's Worms, Adam Phillips recounts a wonderful story about the composer John Cage, who had gone to a concert of work by a friend and been irritated by a programme note in which this other composer had expressed the hope that his music might go some way towards diminishing the suffering in the world. So when the friend tried to defend himself by saying, "But don't you think there's too much suffering in the world?", Cage replied, with level sarcasm, "No, I think there's just the right amount."
I recalled this anecdote while watching the premiere of Stella Feehily's highly amusing and attractive new play, O Go My Man. Set in contemporary Dublin, in a milieu of celebrity chefs, reality television and more abstruse varieties of latte than you can shake a shillelagh at, the piece is partly about the impossibility of striking the right balance between due care for oneself and one's personal growth and one's family, and active concern about the appalling suffering in the world's political and natural disaster-areas.
"O go my man" is an anagram of "monogamy" - a pointed rearrangement of the word that makes an apt title for a drama which, in the first half, is propelled by a series of split-ups.
Just back from filming the horror in Darfur, the hard-drinking maverick television reporter Neil (the excellent Ewan Stewart) is confronted by evidence of his adultery and leaves his wife and daughter for his out-of-work actress-lover Sarah (a fiery and very funny Susan Lynch). She, in turn, abandons her long-time partner Ian (Paul Hickey), a photographer who scorns Neil as an "atrocity tourist" and who becomes involved in doing shoots for the company that makes The Michael Farrell Cookery Show.
Having seen one of Neil's reports, Farrell - who disappointingly never shows his face in the play - has organised a fancy fund-raising "dinner for Darfur". It's arguable that this is an obscenely paradoxical proposition and Neil is dismayed that, instead of creating political will, his work has just mobilised another temporarily interested, bandwagon-jumping celebrity.
There are moments when the play fails to convince as it tries to demonstrate how outrageously media-folk are prepared to use humanitarian crises for their own selfish ends. For example, the family-man celebrity-chef is exposed by the tabloids for his drug-fuelled, three-in-a-bed sexual romps. Elsa (a delicious Denise Gough), the hard-bitten TV executive who created him, has to think of something to distract the hacks and save the day. "I think it's about time Africa gave something back," she shamelessly declares to her sidekick before going off to berate the assembled press for deflecting media interest from Darfur. But she'd have to be very naive to suppose that this tactic had a hope of succeeding.
In the second half, the play gets enjoyably madder and madder - giving us wacky glimpses of Neil undergoing "hostile-environment training" and of Sarah, in costume as the Cheshire Cat, locked in her dressing room by the wronged wife during a performance of a hip-hop version of Alice in Wonderland.
Through the changing interests of the photographer, the play charts a culture's retreat into narcissistic self-pity. Ian made a quiet name for himself with a book about "the hidden Ireland: the immigrants who work in the Spar stores and keep the nation fed". Corrupted by Elsa, he has declined by the end into a man who is willing (like some anti-hero in a piece by Neil LaBute) to make public the intimate snapshots and details of the breakdown of a relationship in a voyeuristically vengeful exhibition of victim-art in a posh gallery.
Max Stafford-Clark's production responds beautifully to Feehily's buoyancy of spirit as she conveys the sobering truth that people are fickle, philanthropic motives are often impure, and television will always want to focus on new, rather than on continuing, misery.Reuse content