Guilt trip to Ire­land

John Nathan on a mov­ing new play about a fam­ily’s at­tempt to un­der­stand their son’s sui­cide, plus a brace of Shake­speare come­dies

The Jewish Chronicle - - ARTS & BOOKS -

There Came A Gypsy Rid­ing Almeida N1

We never see the most i n f l u e n - tial char­ac­ter in Frank McGui­ness’s mov­ing new play. His name is Eu­gene and al­though he has been dead for two years, his pres­ence, or, from his fam­ily’s point of view, his ab­sence, stalks the stage.

To mark what would have been Eu­gene’s 21st birth­day, his par­ents Mar­garet and Leo (Imelda Staunton and Ian McEl­hin­ney) and older sib­lings Louise and Si­mon (Elaine Cas­sidy and Aidan McAr­dle) have gath­ered at the fam­ily’s West of Ire­land coastal home.

Ahead of them is a long day’s jour­ney into night that, like O’Neill’s play, will force the fam­ily to con­front the taboo. Aside from grief, they have to grap­ple with the man­ner of Eu­gene’s death — an al­co­hol-fu­elled sui­cide with no clue left as to what made him do it.

What in­ter­ests McGuin­ness is how a fam­ily sur­vives death and guilt. But what el­e­vates his play above that of a con­ven­tional fam­ily drama is the char­ac­ter of Brid­get — played by Eileen Atkins — the nosy, el­derly ec­cen­tric who lives nearby.

Her con­nec­tion to the fam­ily is through her cousin, Leo. But what places her at the heart of the play is that it was she who found Eu­gene’s body. And in a scene where the stage crack­les with ten­sion, it is Brid­get who de­liv­ers the sealed sui­cide note that she with­held for two years.

The ques­tion there­fore around which Michael At­ten­bor­ough’s won­der­ful pro­duc­tion re­volves is not just why Eu­gene killed him­self, but whether the mis­chievous Brid­get i s mo­ti­vated by cru­elty or kind­ness.

Atkins de­liv­ers the an­swer with what will be one of the per­for­mances of the year, bril­liantly tread­ing a line be­tween the be­nign and the ma­lign. Her med­dling Brid­get is not only the source of the play’s abun­dant hu­mour, but the em­bod­i­ment of the Ir­ish folk­lore and su­per­sti­tion that swirls around McGuin­ness’s writ­ing. Ac­cused by Si­mon of be­ing a witch, she re­torts, “I’m more of a con­fused fairy”.

As the griev­ing mother, an ex­cel­lent Staunton, comes close to match­ing Atkins. There are strong per­for­mances too f rom McAr­dle, Cas­sidy and par­tic­u­larly McEl­hin­ney as the down-to-earth fa­ther. And as the best new play since last year’s “The Sea­farer” by Conor McPher­son, Ir­ish writ­ing once again sets the stan­dard for English-lan­guage drama. (Tel: 020 7359 4404)

Eileeen Atkins and Imelda Staunton con­front tragedy

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