Whistling Psyche, Almeida, London

Psyche's leaden longeurs leave it whistling in the dark
Click to follow
The Independent Culture

It was Kathryn Hunter's childhood dream to play King Lear, an ambition she achieved at the age of 40. The tiny, sprite-like actress has also given us her Richard III and the Old Shepherd in A Winters Tale. These assumptions of masculine identity were, however, voluntary and temporary and therefore very different from the prolonged male impersonation imposed by cultural constraints on the historical character that Hunter brings to compellingly clear, if excessively mannered, life in Sebastian Barry's new play Whistling Psyche.

It was Kathryn Hunter's childhood dream to play King Lear, an ambition she achieved at the age of 40. The tiny, sprite-like actress has also given us her Richard III and the Old Shepherd in A Winters Tale. These assumptions of masculine identity were, however, voluntary and temporary and therefore very different from the prolonged male impersonation imposed by cultural constraints on the historical character that Hunter brings to compellingly clear, if excessively mannered, life in Sebastian Barry's new play Whistling Psyche.

Doctor James Barry (1795-1865) survived an impoverished Irish-Catholic girlhood, moved to England and was possibly advised by one of her painter-uncle's patrons to disguise herself as a man to take a medical degree at Edinburgh University. She then joined the army as a surgeon, serving in various outposts of empire where, according to the play, her secret ambiguous status - male-female, colonised Irish-colonial English - gave her an affinity for outcasts: the insane, lepers, prisoners. The reforms she advocated in hygiene and sanitation pre-dated those of Florence Nightingale by some 30 years.

She rose to high rank but never felt that she was given her due and died embittered, the truth about her gender revealed by the Irish charwoman who washed her corpse and found the stretch-marks that were testimony to the stillborn baby that had resulted from her affair with the governor of the Cape.

The raw material is fascinating. Happiest when writing monologues of dense lyricism and rhetorical reminiscence, Sebastian Barry constructs a scenario that plays to his perceived strengths but renders the occasion dramatically inert, a fact that Robert Delamere's sensitively shaded production cannot disguise. The author imagines a limbo-like situation where the transvestite doctor finds herself in the ornate waiting room of a spectral railway station (the grand, eerie design is by Simon Higlett). She is so wrapped up in her recriminations that she can't perceive the other presence in the building: an ancient Florence Nightingale, whose ladylike asperity and vulnerability are beautifully captured by Claire Bloom.

You know that these opposed types will eventually discover much in common and end in an awkwardly touching embrace. Before that, though, the charge between the characters remains obstinately feeble because of the incommunicative format.

The situation, despite all its latent black comedy, is desperately low on laughs, though the monologues themselves are almost risibly overwritten. Nightingale refers to "the wild, broken music of that stench" in the wards at Scutari. Synaesthesia seems a rather fancy figure of speech to use to evoke a retch-making reek. Music, though, is the art form that springs to mind when you sit through this work, which feels more like a recital than a play - and a laboured recital at that.

Comments