Bruce Arnold

Critic of Public Affairs, writing about art, theatre, music and politics

Review: Tales of Ballycumber, Abbey Theatre

Sebastian Barry's new play is a lyrical work of great and compelling beauty.

It concerns a friendship between two men. The older, Nicholas Farquhar, played by Stephen Rea in a measured and authoritative way, has a subtle but overwhelming impact on the younger man, Evans, played with guileless directness by Aaron Monaghan. He has come to help get jackdaws out of a chimney.

They are Protestants living in rural Wicklow. Evans loves a Catholic girl, Patsy Byrne, confessing this and thereby eliciting from Nicholas the alarming observation: "You couldn't be trusting a girl like that to be looking after you." The bigotry is extended in a remarkable anti-Catholic diatribe made credible only by Rea's sincerity.

Evans, of normal, bright intelligence otherwise, replies: "You think so?" Then goes on to raise again her "greeny-blue eyes" expressing bewilderment as to how it is possible to tell Catholics by sight. Farquhar says it surely is. They talk of lambs and Pomeranian dogs and other things before parting.

The next morning Evans' father, Andrew, played very movingly by Liam Carney, visits Nicholas with the startling information that Evans shot himself in the stomach the previous evening. He shows Nicholas a suicide note that says "Nicholas Farquhar knows".

He says he will kill the other man if he cannot explain this note. Nicholas has forgotten the bigotry, saying: "Nothing amiss was spoke." While Evans dies this long conversation winds on.

Later there is a grieving to which Nicholas is not invited. Various hints of a darker purpose, possible sexual molestation, the madness of Nicholas who has kept his mother alive in his imagination speaking of her thus, culminate in a surreal visit by Evans' ghost. Nicholas contemplates suicide but decides against.

The setting is springtime, the stage awash with daffodils, the chimney a solitary pillar, the rest of the cottage left to the imagination. It is a powerful story, but seriously flawed in its dramatic logic.

A MIDDLE-aged man wakes up to the news that his wife is leaving him.

Numbed into some sort of acceptance, he starts tidying up after the previous night's party. But as he is carrying wine bottles to the bin, he discovers his right arm isn't working properly. Next thing he knows he's on a hospital trolley with doctors speaking about him but not to him. As they discuss the severity of his stroke, he gradually accepts that this scene might be his last and his mind is flooded with scenes from his past.

One moment he's walking in on his aunt and uncle having sex on Christmas Day, overhearing the most tragic of conversations about how unwanted he is.

The next he's being bullied into stealing his uncle's car by his cousin Dennis, or he's meeting his wife for the first time as she drunkenly vomits on his college text books.

As these memories are brought to comically surreal and poignant life, we assemble a portrait of a man whose life has been crumbling for some time, possibly since the death of his parents when he was a small boy.

Tenderly realised by actor Andrew Bennett, this is a life pitted with sadness, loss and unanswered questions, the ultimate being what happened to his baby sister -- given up for adoption when his parents died.

Presented by Corn Exchange with the ever-talented Annie Ryan as director, this is an exploration of the emotional frustrations of this illness and a depiction of a life through memories.

Effective use is made of a tiny camera to project the faces looming in on the patient, so you see the world from his perspective. But there is no unnecessary gimmickry or trickery.

The fact that the script was developed by Michael West in collaboration with the cast means there is a truth to the lines; an often painful honesty. But there are occasions when the pace dips and the connection frays. The text could be tightened. However, this remains a courageous and innovative piece.

DIRECTOR Robert Lepage's "multi-disciplinary" approach to theatre means he's not shy of using audio-visual effects.

But while these can often feel tacked-on, with Lepage they're more intimately involved with the drama.

For this culminating sequel to his 'Dragon's Trilogy', set in modern China, and centred on the loose love triangle between Pierre (Henri Chasse), a Quebecois art gallery owner in Shanghai, his alcoholic PR friend Claire (co-writer Marie Michaud), and struggling artist Xiao Ling (Tai Wei Foo), the audio-visuals help create the paradoxical background to life in the People's Republic.

We have the depth of Chinese mythological tradition as illustrated in Pierre's giant projected calligraphy lessons and the tackiness of a KFC advertisement and blasts of state propaganda shamelessly plundering Chinese history.

The dancing Communist Youth is a nice piece of choreography but, like the model tube-train and the rigid bicycles, they tilt perilously close to the comical. But these clunkier aspects are offset by sequences of exquisite magic.

The three-way tug of love, with its three alternative outcomes, is solidly acted. Sometimes the three look forlorn amid the slick machinery of Michel Gauthier's set, but this adds to the sense of lives swallowed up in the vast belly of the Chinese Dragon.