Mountjoy Jail, Dublin. A cell with a two bunkbeds. Fats Domino’s “On Blueberry Hill” issues from an old transistor radio held together by Sellotape. Lights up on the lower berth: “There I am — I can almost see myself — a young fella at Maynooth, walking along the cinder path, under the host of beech trees. With my Gaelic bible, the wind snatching at the flimsy paper.” PJ (David Ganly) is a doughy, middle class Dubliner with a sweet, tired face.
There’s no fourth wall. As the play proceeds, its characters seem to look at audience members with increasing intimacy. “My mother was put to the pin of her collar when daddy died, we had only his civil service pension then, we had no extra funds.” PJ
Lights off on PJ, then up on the top berth: “We were crowded at the window…looking out…my Da heaving his arm up as if it was a great weight by then, to stop the blow of Daly’s knife coming down on his chest, but he miscalculated, or hadn’t the energy to deflect it, and it went in, deep…” Christy (Niall Buggy) is a bald, wirey, working class guy who peppers speech with fuckin’. .“So then it was just the ma grappling for the bit of money to feed and clothe us…”
PJ is a gay priest whose only living relation was his beloved mum. She died during his incarceration. Christy, a builder by trade, is married with children. He doesn’t blame his family for absenting themselves. Both are filled with anger and remorse.
Christy, who is older, tells us about taking the mailboat to England, meeting his beautiful then 17 year-old wife. “You’re in the clear center of things, but you don’t really know it.” PJ had been, without admitting it to himself, in love with a beautiful 17 year-old seminary student “full of a signaling power” whose attentions he couldn’t fathom.
Back and forth we go as each inmate shares memories from childhood through his improbable, heinous crime. These are, in their own way, honorable men. Descriptions are vivid, poetic – but not so much that they lose the credible tongue of ordinary people. Narrative is immensely focused, painful in the telling even when originally awash with joy. There are amusing passages. The two seem oblivious of one another.
And then the stories connect with unexpected rigor. Thrown in together by a perverse guard, PJ and Christy might’ve killed one another. Instead something unfathomable happens.
Sebastian Barry has written a simply wonderful piece whose single minor fault is to be, perhaps, 10 minutes too long. Both characters are whole, their lives believable. Unwitting relationship is surreptitiously established, what’s happened over time, surprising. We’re drawn into a web whose ending is brilliantly conceived and completely unexpected.
David Ganly and Niall Buggy are marvelous. Distinguishing accents never waver. Each performer immerses himself in conjuring the past, reliving it. Emotions emerge out of history. Thoughts flicker across faces. Because each man is in his own head, we don’t get to see them demonstrate the quality of listening so important to a fine performance, yet both are, in a way, hearing themselves, observing and reacting in real time. Not a moment of the abstract interferes. The audience is fascinated, curious, pitying, sympathetic, appalled, shocked, moved.
Director Jim Culleton allows his protagonists time enough to draw memories from depth. He manages to fill a confined space, utilizing a single piece of furniture with variety of small movement, at no time boring. A terrific sense of theatrical composition is apparent. Eventual lessening of physical distance between characters is deftly achieved. Closure is inspired.
Sabine Dargent’s costumes are spot on. Her exaggeratedly tall bunk beds, perfect. I can’t even conjecture what the numerous rectangles hanging from the ceiling represent.
Mark Galione’s lighting is effectively precise. Sound design by Denis Clohessy is so subtle it insinuates itself subliminally.
This is not the first production I’ve praised from the Irish company fishamble. Treat yourself to this and in the future, watch for them.
Photos by Patrick Redmond
Opening: David Ganly, Niall Buggy
On Blueberry Hill by Sebastian Barry
Directed by Jim Culleton