Almost two decades after the death of distinguished short story writer and journalist Maeve Brennan, the indelible marks this ‘long-winded lady’ left on the body of Irish literature and the hearts of her New York readers are judiciously revisited in this copious dramatisation of some of the most significant moments in her life.
One of the most outwardly striking things about The Talk of the Town is the remarkable likeness in appearance between the late Miss Brennan and the play’s lead actress Catherine Walker, whose staid-like black and white portrait adorns the front cover of the programme. A few pages in is the famed photograph by Karl Bissinger of the writer in 1948, sitting slick and upright before a generous fire, cigarette in hand, up-styled hair, a tad too much lipstick and a look that possesses something of a cross between certitude and circumspection.
From the centre of the darkness director Annabelle Comyn conceives a terrific opening tableau in the flash of white that illuminates Walker’s pallid face as she lights a cigarette. It is clear, off the page and in the flesh, that the resemblance is indeed quite uncanny She plays her with a sort of physical restlessness and an almost child-like verbal overflow that epitomises the sense of what is present in much of Brennan’s story writing – that which is uncontainable and inexpressible: “If I could put it in a word, I wouldn’t have to write a story about it”, she avows to her carping editor, William Shawn (Lorcan Cranitch).
Martini after martini, Emma Donoghue's play progresses through the years spanning 1949 to the 1960s, during which the rollercoaster of Maeve’s life transports us from the heights of her success as fiction and observational writer for The New Yorker and most desirable young woman in the industry, the ins and outs of her tumultuous and complex relationships with her colleagues William Shawn and St Clair McKelway (Owen McDonnell), to the heart-rending depths of a failed marriage, a debilitating bout of writer’s block and a growing dependency on alcohol, in just under two hours. And all the while, as if we are bearing witness to the switching of channels in the mind of a writer so relentlessly preoccupied with the past, we hark back again and again to that little cold corner of her kitchen in Ranelagh in 1927 where she sits with a book in hand and a head full of dreams between her two quietly loveless parents, Bob (Barry Barnes) and Una (Michèle Forbes). Throughout the selection of scenes (some of which, momentous but momentary, last a mere couple of seconds) we are treated to excerpts from Brennan’s short story collections, read through Walker’s resonant and echoic voice. It is during these excerpts that the perpetual motion and oscillation of time- the continuation of which defines the play’s entire form- stands still, demanding our full consideration of each painstakingly fashioned phrase (she was the kind of writer, for example, who was known to sacrifice a couple of nights' sleep for the resolution of a comma, the placement of a semicolon, or for the long-awaited discovery of that one fitting verb).
Paul O’Mahony’s set takes on a kind of metamorphic character of its own. Decked with book shelves, writing desks and half-drank glasses of martini (or milk, as William Shawn’s seemingly preferred beverage), the space is reinvented for each scene at the hands of the actors in sharply choreographed outbursts of dance, purposeful rearrangement and drunken disorder to the beat of Philip Stewart’s evocative soundscape. Altogether this production is a sensual, scrupulous and compelling examination of the rise and fall of one of Ireland’s most talented and equally troubled female literary figures.
Jennifer Lee holds an MPhil in Theatre and Performance and is currently completing her PhD thesis.