Endometriosis rarely presents itself in Irish theatre. In Paul Mercier’s The East Pier, it lies at the heart of a misunderstanding that has kept Jean (Irvine) and Kevin (Wycherley) apart since school. Having spotted each other earlier in the day, the pair meet in the foyer of a hotel that overlooks the pier where Kevin once coerced Jean into a sexual encounter as teenagers. Racked by guilt for years, he eventually manages to apologise, only to have his one-time girlfriend admit that she wanted to have sex with him too, but was afraid because of her condition. Endometrial metaplasia, Jean elaborates to be specific, is when cells change to suit their environment. She likes the detail, and aspires to adapt herself. Endometrial metaplasia is an illness and a metaphor.
As traumatic narratives go, it’s not the most compelling stimulus. However, the deeper problem seems to be that despite having great feeling for each other as kids, and even contemplating marriage at one stage, the pair went their separate ways. Kevin seems particularly attached to his vision of the past, and attempts to poetically pressure it into a shared existence: “You and me, and this tree standing on the edge of the world," he gushes at various points, "I never felt so connected." Reserved Jean is more concerned with facts than flourishes – names, locations, whether there was a petrol pump, or not. Old school mates and young hopes crop up as the pair antagonistically recall the past.
With restless energy and a crackling voice, Wycherley’s Kevin is at odds with himself from the start. Wycherly plays his character’s desperation and self-loathing so achingly well that it’s hard to believe his problems are directly related to a teenage fling. But there are few other threads in the writing to give us greater insight into the role. We know his eldest son shows little respect, and that he doesn’t communicate with his wife, but these admissions are not pursued.
Irvine plays Jean as someone who has worked hard to discipline her emotions. Almost formal at the beginning, not removing her coat, she gradually warms up and joins in the recollections. She loved Kevin at the time, but attempts to reach out were repeatedly frustrated. While Irvine captures her character’s unease well, her tendency to repeatedly flick her nose and wet her lips doesn’t sit easily with the performance.
Both performers have a habit of speaking directly to each other before pivoting around to address the audience; an obvious danger with a two-hander. While they might find license for this in the present tense in which they frequently speak of the past, this too is something of a problem, given the heavily realistic design and style.
So much of the space in Anthony Lamble’s deep set is inert or unused that it seems unnecessary. An arch, shabbily finished at the top, divides the room, and chairs are stacked about the space. Chekhov might have something to say about the conspicuously positioned industrial vacuum cleaner that is never used.
Like The Passing, with which it is in repertory, The East Pier is preoccupied with memory. Here, and in Kevin’s character especially, the desire to remember is complicated by the fear of forgetting. An interesting idea, but without gripping stakes or substance, it strains to create drama.
Mel Mercier’s score is at pains to signal a coastal location, all gulls and horns. But the lengthy opening segment, and the motifs that punctuate throughout, might be more fitted to a television show than a real-time piece of theatre.
When Jean speaks about feeling utterly lost in life, and Kevin later asks her why he feels scared, the play suggests that the characters’ anxieties might be more existential than anything else. However, this avenue remains undeveloped. Ultimately, then, the literal source of conflict seems too slight to be convincing, and despite affecting performances, there isn’t enough layering in the writing to imagine other conflicts and motivations. That this teen romance has shadowed and shaped their adults lives is hard to swallow. (There’s good reason why Romeo and Juliet never grew up.) Although both characters allude to family responsibilities, when their bodies magnetically collide towards the end of the performance, it remains hard to understand what’s really keeping them apart.
Fintan Walsh teaches drama at Trinity College Dublin.