Theatre: Buried but not forgotten

The Wake Abbey Theatre, Dublin
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Indy Lifestyle Online
Playwright Tom Murphy has a great way of wrestling bleak, redemptive lyricism from the devastation of his characters, and this, his emotionally charged 24th play, similarly defies expectations. Even the title, conjuring bodies on tables and crates of stout, is a bitterly ironic red herring. The dead woman is long buried, and the tradition only lingers in the language and the way people spontaneously come together in the pickling crucible of benighted drinking and debauch.

Never informed of her grandmother's death, Vera, a sharply dressed "scarlet lady" (the prismatically reserved Jane Brennan), has been lured back from New York into the familiar viper's nest by her mean, wealthy siblings, who have systematically grabbed property from their extended family: the brittle potentate Mary-Jane (a frighteningly cold Olwen Fouere); the hypocritical, god-fearing Tom (Phelim Drew), or the easily distressed Marcia (Anna Healy).

Vera, a prostitute who, according to her own account, has led a life of demeaning lewdness, shacks up with an old lover, Finbar (David Herlihy), in the lower-class housing estate they call "the Punjab". This disgrace is compounded by her seduction of her brother-in-law, the eccentric arriviste solicitor (Stanley Townsend). Together, they all break into the Imperial Hotel for a long, public, orgiastic binge. Having inherited the hotel, once the family home, Vera now holds the trump cards, but the pincer movement of her siblings' small-town social clout closes in.

There are other, marginal, comic characters: Tom's Prozac housewife, and the eejity post-Father Ted stage-priest - and all come together, as if by race-cultural cue, in a final parlour-party, with renditions of rote-poems from school days, or hymns to Our Lady - memory-triggers all to a bygone (if not wholly fictitious) Catholic monoculture. It's this deep access to the psychological buttons of his Irish audience (most only a generation away from the land) that makes Murphy's excavation of part-rural alienation so effective; never mind his societal rage, which makes audiences so palpably nervous.

The Abbey's artistic director Patrick Mason handles this one himself, with delicate attention to precise textual notation; maintaining the undertow of the very complex emotional dynamics. The shock factors are all in the language: the blasphemy; the sharp deflections from the incision of the humour into pathos, or nightmarish hell. Curiously, there's a strong smell of Mamet from the staccato, incompleted phrases, but it's all ploughed into Murphy's elegiac and satiric strains, bursting like unconscious forces through the thin skein of realism.

There are tiny duff notes - the more urban slang among the rich dialectal registers, or even Vera's flickering self within the sex object - suggesting authorial self-examination, more than a truly possible character. But this is a truly great piece of work, and it is amazing that Murphy can make gripping theatre for large audiences from something so dark - a discordant symphony of emotion that drags you backwards, for more than three hours, over very rocky psychological terrain. In the end, all laughter pales into something very, very sad and solitary; not least the fade-out on the widowed neighbour-woman, picking weeds from her husband's unmarked, unfinished grave.

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