The resonance generated by a performance of Jonathan Swift’s later writings in a lecture hall in St. Patrick’s Hospital is even more keenly felt when it’s realized the majority of the audience are made up patients who reside there. Swift’s role in the hospital’s foundation is greatly overshadowed by his own literary legacy, but its establishment at Swift’s bequest signalled an attempt to treat and understand mental illness at a time when those who suffered its effects were considered beasts or worse.
Swift’s gift to Dublin also reflected his fears for his own sanity, an anxiety that only grew as he approached his death. Performer David Heap, who breaks up the ironic bombast of Swift’s writings with the subtle, wilting physicality of a man desperate to hold onto his senses, plays this anxiety with great sensitivity. The one man show, developed last year as part of the Fishamble/Absolut Fringe/Irish Theatre Institute 'Show in a Bag' initiative, with dramaturgical support by Gavin Kostick, is presented by Heap and director Paul Hayes in a sort of conversational way, as if we were given the chance to experience the delight of Swift’s writing directly from the man himself.
Designer Jeni Roddy has populated the raised platform of the lecture hall with only a desk, a chair and a lectern, all covered with bright, languorous white sheets. We’re introduced to the figure of Swift as a somewhat absent-minded charmer, his hair mussed and his shirt untucked, more reminiscent of a wayward boy than the Dean of St. Patrick’s Cathedral. Heap’s Swift playfully engages with the audience, his long-published words tumbling out as if crafted there in the moment of utterance. It becomes clear, though, in the rare halts and stutters that punctuate Heap’s performance, that beneath Swift’s mischievous wit lies the knowledge of his own physical and mental decline.
Reflecting this is the central figure of Swift’s 'Stella', his close companion and confidant, of whom we learn through Swift’s birthday poems to her. Swift hangs a small portrait of her which hovers behind him throughout the performance, serving sometimes as a scene partner, sometimes as judge, but mostly as a reminder of the irreparable loss of a loved one. As Swift ranges through extracts from satiric poetry to excerpts from Gulliver’s Travels, it’s clear the performative act of writing is conjured up as a desperate attempt to hold off the inevitability of decay. This seems to be the dramatic conflict of the piece and while it's not always successful, the universality of that conflict - of constantly being pulled back to the pain of remembrance while trying to so hard to circumvent it - is what gives the piece its beating heart.
It’s also hard not to be jolted by the prescience of Swift’s brand of biting satire. This is particularly true when his reactions to the banking crises of his own time so closely sum up our own disgust at Ireland’s current financial debacle: “A baited banker thus desponds,” crows Swift, “From his own hand forsees his fall/ They have his soul, who have his bonds;/‘Tis like the writing on the wall.”
The decision to have Heap speak only with Swift’s own original text is an exciting one, and it was no doubt a challenge to shape dramaturgically a rise and fall of action without attempting to comment on Swift’s work with one’s own material. The downside to this can be the lagging of momentum as the play progresses, as the faithful delivery of text can seem inflexible. It can feel at times that the text resists dramatization, especially as Heap presents us with a biographical representation of Swift rather than something more abstract and malleable. Sound cues, such as the portentous gong of a steeple bell and a disembodied female voice speaking for Stella, break into the action with more frequency as the piece progresses. While intended to undermine Swift’s meditations, on the night of this performance they were at times delivered late, making the effect more awkward than unnerving.
Regardless, Heap’s engrossing performance was enjoyed by an appreciative audience, who responded knowingly to the incisiveness of Swift’s attacks on all manner of hypocrisy. Swift’s anxieties concerning the inevitability of aging and the fears of one’s own mental decline no doubt echoed powerfully with many of those present.
Jesse Weaver recently completed his doctoral thesis at University College Cork. His research focus was on the changing roles of the playwright in Irish theatre production from 1980 to 2010.