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The Seafarer review (Fortyfivedownstairs,Melbourne)


It was nominated for best play at both the Olivier Awards and the Tony Awards, but this new local production of Conor McPherson’s The Seafarer is a thorough disappointment.

The scene is Dublin, Christmas Eve, in the dingy basement flat of brothers James and Richard Harkin. Richard, or “Sharky” as the former deckhand is nicknamed, has returned home to care for his blind and increasingly frail older brother. An alcoholic since forever, Sharky is now on the water wagon, much to his brother’s disgust. December in Dublin is a tough time to go cold turkey, but  if you can beat Christmas, you can beat anything. Or so Sharky tells himself.

McPherson takes his time drawing out the shifts and stops between the two brothers, argumentative but loyal. With a mutual friend called Ivan on hand to swell the progress, the opening scenes have a subdued, downbeat quality, lingering on Sharky’s exaggerated fear and loathing.

Everything Sharky touches goes to hell. And yet, moved by a fleeting glimpse of love in distant Lahinch, he has determined to turn his life around, starting with the drink. Thus he is like the lonely seafarer in the Old English poem of the same name,alienated from the happy, hard-drinking human herd, braving the winter wastes with only his own miserable self for company.

This new Hoy Polloy production plods along drearily. There is none of the easy competence that McPherson’s lyrical Dublinese demands. The dialogue should ping, soar for a moment, plunge in gloom and auld lang syne, then lift again,with gannet’s clamour, loudness and laughter. But here it all sounds like recitation or rehearsal, and very monotonous, a halting, stop-start affair, with lines regularly stepped on, or stepped over.

Geoff Hickey as Richard looks the part, a squinny-eyed crank, doddering and in need of a bath, but he’s far too slow, always groping for his next line, suggesting senility rather than impishness. He gets in the way, and everyone else piles up behind. Meanwhile, Barry Mitchell as his brother’s keeper seems wetter than is needed, and Adam Rafferty as the eternally jarred hanger-on is all of a shrug, and much the gormless bystander.

Things pick up markedly after interval, however, as the dour naturalism of the first act takes a sharp turn toward the supernatural. A game of poker is organised and the grog begins to flow. Michael Cahill as the Mephistophelian Mr Lockhart is all smug self- confidence while David Passmore’s Nicky Giblin, Sharky’s love-rival, dashes about like a ferret in a rabbit warren.

With Sharky’s soul on the line and his history of dereliction and failure exposed, the rowdy, roundabout yarning takes on an elevated, mystical aspect, as though there were something sacred and potentially redeeming in every hand of five card stud. The high point comes with Mr Lockhart’s affecting evocation of Hell as a lonely, cold place of pure shame. This is somewhere between T.S Eliot’s Hell of pure solitude and Sartre’s Hell of other people. It is the alcoholic’s hell, the paradoxical double fear of being alone and of being seen.

But although it improves, this production never rises to any great height. Given the awful amount of whiskey and hooch the five dipsomaniacs manage to put away, director Wayne Pearn doesn’t allow much drunken slapstick, or business of any kind. Everyone but Passmore seems lethargic, preferring to settle in their seats, speaking with heavy tongues. There’s something almost pensive about their attitudes. Does this connect with the play’s theme of obsessive introspection? Or is it only a lack of confidence, in themselves, in one another?

Everything here is a little bit dull. The set is a solidly built and serviceable piece, sparsely furnished, with plenty of genuine Irish booze for ornament. There are a few neat details, like a sick-looking maidenhair fern in one corner; but overall chez Harkin lacks atmosphere. The palette keeps to soft grey and yellow tones, and the lighting is bland. This is supposed to be Christian magic – where are the long shadows? The lurid transformations? Shouldn’t there at least be some dark corner where conscience lurks, or devils multiply?

And, please, no more of the Pogues. A great band, no doubt, but now it’s like the Erin go Bragh for eejit Australian theatre companies. Authentic Irish decrepitude can’t be bought so cheaply.

Conor McPherson has talked often about his own struggles with alcohol, as well as his loneliness and lapsed Catholicism.That sense of compulsive honesty, the need to pour out every anxiety, is all through this play, and each of the different characters is looking at the same bruise in a different way, which is really just the painful fact of being alive.

And yet, with a production so hesitant and unfulfilled as this, you end up wondering at the real quality of this play, its swag of nominations aside. Is it really that good? Without the verbal pyrotechnics –the flattering blarney — the scenario looks a little tattered, the magical realism a bit silly, and theconclusion, its false optimism, a somewhat vacuous

The Seafarer is at fortyfivedownstairs until August 10. Image by Fred Kroh. L to R: Geoff Hickey, Adam Rafferty, Barry Mitchell, David Passmore and Michael F Cahill.


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