Focusing on a blind woman whose sight is restored briefly (and disastrously) in her early forties, Brian Friel's recently premiered play Molly Sweeney suffers from one striking and peculiar omission. It turns a blind eye, so to speak, to the entire question of looks and of how suddenly being able to see a spouse would alter the balance of the marriage. For all they attended to matters corporeal, Friel's central pair might just as well have been disembodied spirits.
The same could not be said of the elderly beggar couple in Synge's blackly comic and robustly unsentimental 1905 play The Well of the Saints. Unsighted and very unsightly, they have been convinced by the local peasantry that they are a splendidly handsome duo. So when an itinerant saint gives them back their sight by anointing them with water from a holy well, they are aghast at the spectacle of each other's ugliness and lapse into mutual loathing before blindness descends on them again. This time, though, they reject the saint's proffered miracle, preferring exile and the comfort of illusions created by the mind's eye to sighted life in this narrow-minded, priest- ridden locality.
Patrick Mason's bitingly funny Abbey Theatre production, now visiting the Edinburgh Festival, punches home the play's caustic anti- Catholicism and its impatience with the gullible peasantry. Taking to heart Synge's statement that he wanted to write 'like a monochrome painting, all in shades of the one colour', the set is a vivid exercise in subtly graduated bleakness - a mud-flat scattered with crosses wrapped in tattered white cloth with a raggedy black hessian curtain as backdrop. The design is not the only element that makes you feel The Well anticipates Beckett's dramatic landscapes.
Representing the Christianity against which the pagan, outsider-spirit of the beggar couple finally rebels, Stuart Graham's saint is such a hollow-eyed, unstable, arrogantly power-mad fanatic as to verge on caricature. But if the production, with all its religious processions, is guilty of loading the dice on that score, it manages to win eventual support for the blind mendicants without in any way sanitising them. As Mary and Martin Doul, Pat Leavy and Derry Power present a warts-and-all picture of a deludedly vain hag, built like a tank, and a balding 'shabby stump of a man'. Given the story and theme, it is, of course, a drama where the looks of the performers are of particular importance and, in that regard, it's difficult to see how Mason's cast could be improved on. Derbhle Crotty, for example, with her great pre-Raphaelite mane and her insolent urchin beauty, is precisely how a reader of the play would picture the taunting Molly Byrne.
Mason has added a prelude in which we see the saint striking the ground and causing water to spring up in the air to the bell-jangling jubilation of his flock. The next time we see a great upward leap of liquid is towards the end, when Martin's stick knocks the can of holy water from the saint's hands, a gesture which this excellent production ensures you see as a blow for freedom.
King's Theatre, Leven Street (031- 225 5756). 7.30pm. To 28 Aug
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