Anything But Love

Malcolm Adams & Caitríona Ní Mhurchú in 'Anything But Love' a new play by Mary Coll. Photo: Maurice Gunning

Malcolm Adams & Caitríona Ní Mhurchú in 'Anything But Love' a new play by Mary Coll. Photo: Maurice Gunning

Post Celtic Tiger and firmly rooted in a modern secular Ireland, Mary Coll’s new play and only her second reflects with acuity its time and its place. Anything But Love, the opening production of Limerick’s long-awaited and beautifully refurbished Belltable, is inspired by Kate O’Briens’ novel The Ante Room, published in the 1930’s and set in the 1880’s, about a pair of sisters in love with the same man: one unhappily married to him, the other consumed by her Catholic guilt for loving him.

Political freedom, economic prosperity, technological advancements and Ireland’s progression towards fewer priests and fewer worshippers has imprinted seismic changes on our evolving social landscape – but although the shackles of religion no longer exist, Annie’s tortured conscience is no less than that of Agnes’ in the novel. Coll’s reimagining of the story for contemporary times indicates strongly the existence of conscience as a stand alone facet of human nature, unreliant on religious direction to determine what is right and what is wrong. When Vincent, her brother-in-law played by Malachy McKenna, at one point in the play urges Annie to run away with him, her response is, “where would we go that I would not be Marie Rose’s sister?”

Annie, played by Cathy Belton, is a modern single career woman returned to Limerick from Dublin where her sister Marie Rose (Caitríona Ní Mhurchú) and husband Vincent still live. She leaves Dublin to look after her dying mother but implicit in her motivation is also a need to remove herself from the couple's orbit. The play is set over three days beginning on All Saints' Eve in the comfortable middle class sitting room of the dying matriarch. Gathered for the countdown to death are the sisters, their gay brother and somewhat accomplished musician Ritchie, Vincent, and the Polish nurse Kalena, played by Mirjana Rendulic (who depicts the missing Catholic conscience among her Irish employers and as the story evolves, she represents the hard practical nature of a woman who can easily assuage her conscience when an opportunity presents itself for elevation to prosperity).

All life is complicated by the families we come from as Coll’s writing adeptly highlights, and she unwraps this in an extremely bittersweet narrative, peppered with the funniest of nuggets and magnificently counterbalanced with dialogue that drives home the sad truths of human existence. “It doesn’t matter where we are,” Marie Rose tells her sister at one point. “We are as miserable in Italy as we are in Dalkey, just better weather.” Ritchie is the blue-eyed boy of his mother’s imagination and he knows that. She will leave him the property but only if he is married. “My mother loves her idea of me,” he proffers at some point.

Coll’s charting of a family in turmoil is served without melodrama. There is sibling squabbling over the family silver but it is not aggressive, nor is it the primary motivation of the protagonists. Tweaked out instead between the bickering and reminiscences are the seemingly sensible sacrifices we make in the hope of having a good life and the heartbreak that certain choices incur. Marrying for comfort instead of love is one such scenario investigated in the story. Ritchie, played by Malcolm Adams - and Coll’s excellent conduit for much of the wit and cynicism in her characters - has led a fairly reckless life but now that he, too, is ill, he concludes that money and a decent place to live are in the best interests of child rearing. He points out that his mother married his father for the few bob, therefore why shouldn’t a single mother (the nurse) choose him for the same reasons? And though his plan is Machiavellian and will deny his sisters their expected inheritance, it makes perfectly good sense and could in theory turn an unhappy fate into a happy one. Or could it? That is, I suppose. the question.

Engaging and entertaining, Anything But Love is very well written piece. Its treatment of modern ‘bijou homes,’ aka ‘starter homes’ Ireland (Vincent is the post tiger property developer), for example, is on the pulse but never laboured in the writing.  Directed superbly by Joan Sheehy, the interpretation of the nuanced but distinct way a family has of communicating is brought to the fore throughout the performances. The sub-text examines the compulsive behaviour human beings can engage in to further their own interests, all the while aware of its destructiveness but nevertheless powerless to stop it. The actors achieve beguiling familial connections with one another that resonate of authenticity, sure to stoke recognition among members of any audience.

Michael O’Suilleabhain’s original score for the play is haunting and befitting the story. Set design by Ferdia Murphy is a naturalistic detailed representation of an elderly lady’s sitting room; couch, chaise longue, carpet, rug, pictures, ornaments, fireplace and silver with nothing left to suggestion which integrates perfectly with the realism of the drama. Lighting designer Kevin Treacy complements all this with non-intrusive lighting.

Anything But Love is a beautifully realised production in all senses. Coll’s cast and director serve her writing and well-sketched characters with aplomb. There are no good guys or bad guys, just a family trying to come to terms with their individual fates and looking at ways to temper these fates.

Breda Shannon is a freelance writer and reviews books for The Irish Examiner.

  • Review
  • Theatre

Anything But Love by Mary Coll

26 Nov - 11 Dec, 2010

Produced by Joan Sheehy in association with the Belltable Arts Centre
In Belltable Arts Centre, Limerick

Directed by Joan Sheehy

Set and Costume Design: Ferdia Murphy

Lighting Design: Kevin Treacy

Music: Micheal O’Suilleabhain

With: Malcolm Adams, Cathy Belton, Caitríona Ní Mhurchú, Malachy McKenna and Mirjana Rendulic