by Conor McPherson
Directed by Rachael O’Riordan
Conor McPherson’s a natural at the supernatural. The Irish playwright is best known for The Weir, in which the characters narrate a string of spooky stories featuring fairies, a ouija board and a mother haunted by her dead child. St Nicholas, features a debauched theatre critic who falls under the spell of vampires and Shining City see’s a widower haunted by the ghost of his dead wife.
McPherson’s preoccupation with the supernatural continues in The Seafarer which subverts Marlowe’s Faustian myth to suggest that no human is beyond salvation – not even Sharky, who sells his soul to the devil 25 years ago but who gains an unexpected reprieve and recieves an unexpected visitor one Christmas eve. Hailed by The New York Times as ‘quite possibly the finest playwright of his generation’, McPherson has honed his storytelling skill. The play unfolds gradually through lots of loud drunken banter amongst the characters over a game of cards but it is the moments of silence with Sharky and his visitor that give The Seafarer its chilling tone.
Garry McCann’s meticulous design brings you right inside the home, hearts and minds of the underclass, holed-up in their dank North-Dublin basement on a deeply desolate, Christmas Eve. Grubby, tattered and as neglected as the people who live there, the house is home to the Harkin brothers. Richard (Ciaran McIntyre), has been recently blinded in a drunken foray into a rubbish skip. Younger brother Sharky (Louis Dempsey), a peripatetic divorcee has recently returned after losing his chauffeuring job in county Claire and now faces caring for his blind, irascible brother Richard barks out orders for tea and toast as Sharky, resentful but compliant, takes the brunt of his abusive comments. It’s not long before we meet another hungover companion of Richard’s: Ivan played by Sean O’Callaghan, a sweet-natured drunk who is always in the doghouse with his wife. Over several Irish coffees, (minus the coffee) Richard shares anecdotes and stories on all manner of subjects, from his faith in God to his hatred of the ‘fucking winos’ who inhabit his back step. Richard repeatedly expresses a desire to make everything ‘nice and Christmassy’, so a shopping list for the festive season is drawn up: four six packs of Harp, a few Stout, three bottles of Paddy Powers whiskey, and some bottles of Miller and as an afterthought, a turkey.
The play undergoes a distinct change of tone when they are joined for a festive game of poker by Versace-wearing wide-boy Nicky, (Tony Flynn) and the chillingly composed and well-dressed Mr Lockhart, played by Benny Young and whilst Nicky has earned Sharky’s hostility by expropriating his ex-girlfriend and car – in that order, it is Lockhart who causes the greatest conflict as the whiskey (and later Richard’s secret stash of poitín) takes hold and the stakes turn damningly high. It is soon revealed that Sharky has made a Faustian bargain 25 years previously with Mr Lockhart who has arrived to play for his very soul in the poker game.
There is a strong oral tradition of storytelling in Irish folklore which has a contemporary medium in The Seafarer. McPherson takes the spirit of The Hellfire Club which was an old Irish folktale about the devil coming to the mountains above Dublin and repositions it into a modern, working-class Dublin setting, melding the eerie and the everyday seamlessly. The most powerful and poetic monologues belong to Mr Lockhart who with real menace announces, ‘I’m the son of the morning, Sharky, I’m the snake in the garden’ to reveal himself to be the devil and causes Sharky to howl in pain on the floor. A terrifying moment in the play aided all the more by Kevin Treacy’s cold and sinister lighting design.
In a joint production between the Lyric Theatre and The Perth Theatre, The Seafarer’s director Rachel O’Riordan gives McPherson’s profane and sacred text, the Northern Irish premiere it deserves. Praise is also due to McCann’s exquisitely shabby costumes and set which reflect the low social status of its inhabitants. From the scrawny half-lit Christmas tree in the corner to a picture of the Sacred Heart whose flickering votive status holds great significance, this production is close to perfection.
Although McPherson’s Seafarer uses Irish folklore as a model, his play is also inspired by an eighth century Anglo-Saxon poem of the same name. Like the Seafarer of the poem, Sharky has wandered, suffered and found his way back to terra firma. Despite milking every possible drop of comedy from the group’s drunken high jinks, the play make an existential point about how to live our lives. McPherson balances on a delicate narrative tightrope between natural and supernatural and his play reminds us that life, no matter what shape or form, must be celebrated.