The Veil, National Theatre: Lyttelton, London
Monday 10 October 2011
In The Weir, Conor McPherson's most famous play, the regulars in a bleak Sligo pub compete with each other in telling spooky yarns to impress a young woman new to the locality.
Ghosts also haunt The Veil, premiered now in the author's own finely acted, if slightly sluggish, production in Lyttelton – only here the setting (splendidly designed by Rae Smith) is the crumbling pile of an Ascendancy family on its uppers in the rural Ireland of 1822.
This is McPherson's first new work in five years and his virgin venture into costume drama. Partly we are in Cherry Orchard territory here – toffs in decline; a country estate endangered; unrequited love in epidemic proportions. But the playwright gives the proceedings a strong period specificity. With Ireland's economy in ruins post the Napoleonic Wars and the peasants defaulting on their rents because of crop failure, Lady Madeleine Lambroke (Fenella Woolgar) is on the point marrying off her 17-year-old daughter Hannah (affecting Emily Taaffe) to an English marquis in order to pay off her debts.
A decade earlier in this very drawing room, Hannah had found the body of her father after his suicide. She hears voices and appears to be attuned to a spirit trapped between two worlds. This propensity greatly interests Reverend Berkeley, the rather fruity defrocked priest (an amusingly orotund Jim Norton) who has come to chaperone her to England, along with this philosophiser sidekick, Charles Audelle (Adrian Schiller), a self-indulgent, plagiaristic fan of German idealism (and laudanum) who can only remain faithful to women as long as they help him "see into the eternal". When the priest organises a seance to challenge the supposedly lurking spook, he opens the door to disaster.
The trouble is that the cog of the Chekhovian state-of-Ireland project never properly engages with cog of the spirtually speculative ghost story so that they become mutually propelling.
It's thanks to the idiosyncratic strength of the cast that The Cherry Orchard aspect does not feel more repro. Peter McDonald, in particular, excels as Fingal, the youngish estate manager who persists in carrying a forlorn candle for the lady of the house.
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