Blessed and cursed with the gift of gab, Irish playwrights can’t resist a good yarn. A century may separate the current generation from Synge, but the recipe remains the same: larger-than-life eccentric characters, copious colorful words, and rich humor laced with arsenic. Two new plays by touted Gaelic lads, Eugene O’Brien’s Eden and Martin McDonagh’s The Pillowman, suggest that the only thing that may have changed is the amount of poison buried in the narrative ore.
Conor McPherson, the author of The Weir and This Lime Tree Bower, looms as a heavy influence over Eden. Not only is O’Brien’s two-hander (winner of the Irish Times Award for Best New Play) similarly composed of booze-addled monologues, but McPherson himself helmed the 2001 premiere at the Abbey Theatre’s Peacock Stage in Dublin. The Irish Rep’s production, directed by John Tillinger, actually does a better job of conveying the dramatic action, which revolves around the sexless marriage of a couple on the cusp of middle age.
Blotched and paunchy, Billy (Ciarán O’Reilly) spends most of his free time away from the wife and kids, drinking with his buddies and dreaming about making it with a younger woman. Downing anything that can be poured, he drunkenly imagines himself embraced behind a tree by the beautiful Imelda—he’s “hard as a rock,” she’s “lovin’ every minute of it.” His wife, Breda (Catherine Byrne), by contrast, pleasures herself by reading softcore novels featuring sultans, harems, and multiple-orgasmic rape. Several sizes smaller after strenuous dieting, Breda is determined to rekindle the flame of marital romance—if only she can bolster her wrecked self-esteem, the legacy of an abusive father, years of living in an outsize body, and a husband who can’t combine a hard-on with family life.
Breda’s dream of dancing with Billy at the local pub and then leading him to lovemaking devolves into an inebriated rampage. No longer able to fulfill his spousal duty, he ends up chasing after his lust’s desire and suffers a humiliating (and bloody) rebuff by the girl’s appalled friends. His wife, meanwhile, lives out his fantasy of trysting outdoors, stealing satisfaction with a willing bartender.
What distinguishes O’Brien’s trudge through domestic purgatory is the direct way he addresses such discomfiting issues as impotence and pervasive alcoholism. Flying in the face of taboos, he de-romanticizes the rural Irish landscape. The serpent in this “Eden” may be on the loose, but its power to tempt has little effect when it comes between husbands and wives.
While McPherson’s production bogged down in naturalistic details, Tillinger’s has a spare quality that trusts his cast and the imagination of the audience. Byrne’s unforced poignancy clarifies the emotional arc, while O’Reilly lends an endearing note to a comically inept rascal. In their hands, the escalating high jinks are humanized with sodden tenderness.
McDonagh, the most successful of the new crop of Irish dramatists (if being English-born doesn’t disqualify him), can’t resist concocting a fable, the grislier the better. He does it again in his latest effort, The Pillowman, one of the National Theatre’s heralded new productions, no doubt heading our way. An ambitious piece (given a bold staging by John Crowley and starring Jim Broadbent), it runs into the same problems as The Beauty Queen of Leenane: Dramatic twists get the better of dramatic vision.
Set inside a totalitarian prison, the action (a writer, Katurian, is arrested on uncertain charges) provokes Kafkaesque expectations. Katurian assumes his interrogation has something to do with his stories (most of which dramatize the torture and murder of children), though it turns out someone has been enacting the crimes he’s imagined. That someone is his mentally handicapped brother, who was himself tortured by their parents, who in revenge were killed by Katurian. A recap of the plot could continue like this indefinitely. McDonagh keeps changing the game, a sign that he hasn’t decided what he’s writing about (the conflict between the storyteller’s freedom and state power, the repetition of family pathology, the relationship between autobiography and literature). Inevitably, he ups the violence, which he characteristically treats with cartoonish distance—there’s horror, but the unreality keeps it from burrowing into the bone. Tall tales, no matter how sensational, need a few grains of truth to ensnare their willing victim.