The challenge taken up by longtime collaborators Frank McGuinness and director Patrick Mason in staging The Hanging Gardens is how to stage a coherent representation of a failing mind. This is not a necessarily new challenge (King Lear comes to mind), but it’s certainly a worthy one. More and more of us are living longer and as such are increasingly susceptible to the extreme breakdown of both body and mind as we grow ever older. It’s almost certain most of us will be confronted with the loss brought on by dementia, either firsthand or by witnessing a loved one succumb. In McGuinness’s newest play for the Abbey several metaphors are staged in order to articulate this experience of loss from the viewpoints of both the sufferer of dementia and his family, and while not all these metaphors are successful in their execution, the overall effect is devastating.
Novelist Sam Grant (Niall Buggy) is an everyday Lear, plagued both by three squabbling adult children and the decay of a once vibrant mind. Of course here it’s not the inheritance of an ancient kingdom that’s at stake, but the future of Sam’s Donegal house and gardens. Tended carefully by Sam’s wife Jane (Barbara Brennan), the gardens play the dual roles of familial battleground and metaphor for Sam’s mind, which is, thanks to his illness, becoming ‘an unweeded garden that grows to seed’. Designer Michael Pavelka gives us a rather realistic looking garden space bathed in autumnal shades of red but ringed by a series of large, rust coloured walls that extend concentrically beyond the horizon, giving the impression that the garden sits at the center of an unearthly maze. The weeds breaking through stone steps and encroaching on a circular brick patio suggest that, in spite of Jane’s attention, it’s only a matter of time before all is inevitably overgrown. The overall affect is both of a safe haven and a prison yard.
The three siblings converge on their parents’ home with mixed intentions, using the excuse of tending to an aging parent as a means of seeking out some comfort or redemption. The oldest, the homebound Charlie (Declan Conlon), has made it his job to look after his father, while middle sister Rachel (Cathy Belton), pregnant with the family’s first grandchild, has come home to find sanctuary. The youngest, Maurice (Marty Rea), nurses a broken heart while finally admitting his homosexuality openly to his family. Conlon, Belton and Rea play their characters with great heart, but in both the writing and the direction there’s a distinct disconnectedness that goes beyond the representation of estranged siblings. We never seem to get a sense of what these siblings mean to each other outside of concerns regarding their father’s condition or what comes after his inevitable passing. The same could be said of Jane, whom Brennan injects with a vivacity and fierceness but whose characterization is determined ultimately by how Sam engages her moment to moment: as foil, as confessor, as co-conspirator, etc.
Of course this is Sam’s play, and it would follow that his wife and children are therefore confined to his orbit, especially in the first act. As such the experience we get is of Sam’s deterioration and his attempt to register his family’s response to it. In order to achieve this, McGuinness attempts to subtly smudge the edges of reality as one by one Sam’s children confront him about past slights, real and perceived. The subtle ritualistic staging of these moments suggest that each character engaging Sam is perhaps an extension of his own mind, calling into question the reality of each encounter. The second act confirms that these encounters did indeed happen, but the dislocation caused by them lasts long enough to cause an emotional disengagement from the overall family dynamic. We care a great deal for Sam and the toll his illness has taken, but it’s much harder to connect with characters whose existence seems predicated primarily on illuminating Sam’s suffering.
Despite this, though, McGuinness’s dialogue is as rich as ever, finding poetry in the prosaic, and crafting images in his language that hit you square in the chest (Sam’s final speech in the play is particularly devastating). McGuinness is also indebted to Niall Buggy’s playing of Sam. Buggy is in full command here, shifting effortlessly between the harried states of Sam’s illness, from expressions of a violent anxiety to a placid centeredness, all the time grappling for territory quickly being lost to the disease claiming more and more of his mind.
Star rating: ★★★