The Abbey stage is bedecked with daffodils, framed with a cyclorama that reaches up to the flies. The set is almost something out of a fairytale, with the interior of a house suggested by a chimney that reaches up into the seemingly infinite space above our heads. The characters of Sebastian Barry’s latest play are made to feel tiny and insignificant here, a fact borne out in the lonely metaphysical space they all inhabit.
Nicholas Farquhar is a middle-aged bachelor farmer in Wicklow, surrounded by the offstage ruins of the once teeming Protestant community of Ballycumber that he and his family are a product of. As the last, unmarried bearer of a lost heritage, Nicholas has cleared for himself a space in which to weave together the pale webs of memory and self-perpetuated fiction, perhaps in order to supply the material by which to fill the ever-shortening expanse of his life. Marking the time are visits from his young friend Evans, the only son of his distant neighbors. If Nicholas is a soul at the end of a journey through lonely stretches of remembrance and regret, Evans seems to be a soul at the beginning. Both men feel themselves cut off from the rest of the world around them, and their only opportunities for connection are savored through the telling of Nicholas’s tales. But as Nicholas learns, stories have their own consequences, and when Evans obliquely reaches out to him for advice, Nicholas’s infatuation with the ghosts of the past leaves Evans’s appeals unanswered. This missed opportunity to help his young friend propels Nicholas into a battle with a history that has nearly buried him alive.
Stephen Rea fills the role of Nicholas with a hard-won humanity and tenderness, and he’s matched in detail and pathos by Aaron Monaghan’s finely wrought portrayal of Evans. The pace of the opening encounter between the two men falters slightly at the start, but ultimately the rich timbres of Barry’s overly crafted language are wrestled with and tamed, with both men settling in confidently as the play progresses. The remainder of the cast offer up fine support to the central players. Liam Carney as Andrew, the distraught father of Evans, beautifully evokes a man masking his loss and confusion under a fragile stoicism. Derbhle Crotty’s unforced portrayal of Nicholas’s wounded sister Tania is excellent, while Lisa Hogg’s rendering of the ghost that stalks Nicholas’s memory balances eeriness with compassion.
The main character of the play, though, is Barry’s language. While technically adept and endlessly lyrically, the sheer weight of Barry’s dialogue is enough to nearly stop the action on stage, dragging the characters down in needless displays of Barry’s already proven craftsmanship. What happens, then, is the doubling up of resonances, awkwardly beating a moment on its head with mawkish phrases when a simple statement or silence could easily have conveyed the internal struggles playing out before us. Of course, we now have an impressive body of work in Barry’s plays, novels, and poetry to assure us he is more than an exceptional writer. In this case, his duty as a dramatist seems hampered by his insistence on self-conscious, virtuoso displays of overtly theatrical language, which the cast do their best to carry. As in his earlier work, Barry has presented characters of tremendous depths that elicit immediate sympathy. But the language with which they’re meant to express their fraught existence bogs them down unnecessarily, dampening their impact.
This issue is foregrounded by Mike Britton’s stunning set design, which produces such a powerful stage image that it arenders Barry’s florid dialogue superfluous in its descriptive power. Regardless, this hillside teeming with daffodils contrasts beautifully with the site of Nicholas’s stark, decaying home. They evoke a kind of menace bent on smothering Nicholas as he submits to the final act of his life. Bolstering this menace are the episodic and ghostly animations thrown up on the cyclorama that bridge the scene changes, offering an eerie counterpoint to the blooming fields carpeting the stage below.
Despite their striking effect, these individual components fail to cohere into an effective whole. Director David Leveaux seems to have been so concerned with the overarching visual effects that the intricacies of language and character relationships were considered a secondary concern. Luckily, such inattentions are more than compensated for by such strong performances from a highly skilled and committed cast. Both Barry and he have been served well in spite of themselves.