Dublin Theatre Festival: Halcyon Days

Anita Reeves and Stephen Brennan in 'Halcyon Days' by Deirdre Kinahan at Dublin Theatre Festival. Photo: Patrick Redmond

Anita Reeves and Stephen Brennan in 'Halcyon Days' by Deirdre Kinahan at Dublin Theatre Festival. Photo: Patrick Redmond

‘You can see the dread in every visiting face,’ says the elderly Patricia in Deirdre Kinahan’s new two-hander exploring the battles waged while trying hold on to one’s dignity in the face of inevitable physical and mental collapse. Patricia (Anita Reeves) has recently been checked into a Dublin nursing home, much against her own will. The victim of increasingly frequent debilitating seizures, the fiercely independent Patricia immediately bucks against the home’s infantilising power structure, and fully believes (at first) that her presence there is only temporary. When she befriends fellow inmate Seán (Stephen Brennan) in the home’s musty old conservatory, it becomes clear to both that this may very well be the last place they will ever live.

At the outset these circumstances suggest a very grim tale indeed. But Kinahan is careful not to wallow in any gloomy contemplation of the inevitable end we will all, one way or another, have to endure. Rather, her approach to the subject of death and dying, and the institutional cordoning off of the old and infirm from the rest of us, is to fight darkness with light, and cold finality with the warmth of worldly humour. This happens to be Patricia’s strategy as well. Bursting into the conservatory at the start of the play, she doesn’t let the facts of Sean’s seeming catatonia defer her attempts to engage him in a dizzying range of conversational subjects. Reeves plays Patricia expertly, crafting her as a matronly raconteur tinged with disarming shades of pathos: strong-willed, but capable of exhibiting affecting moments of despair. Brennan, a Gate Theatre stalwart, is utterly transformed here as Sean, a long retired thespian whose memory betrays him and introduces, over and over again, the remembrance of the lover who left him alone to fade away into dementia. Brennan’s performance is a genuine delight, and as Patricia coaxes the weak and willowy Sean out of his wheelchair to stand on his own two feet, it’s impossible not be charmed by Brennan’s boyish, wide-eyed glee.

Kinahan’s plot, which follows, on the surface, a sort of ‘boy meets girl’ trajectory, is deceptively simple, and would resemble any saccharine television treatment of old age were it not for her keen and subtle sense of theatricality. Her dialogue, particularly the first telegraphic exchanges between Patricia and Seán, is richly idiomatic and carefully constructed. And while Patricia and Seán are the only characters to physically appear onstage, Kinahan is able to people the world outside the walls of the conservatory with a host of players whose presence is invoked by her two carefully drawn characters. She’s aided in this regard by David Horan’s skillful direction, which turns the suggested appearance of a nurse or relative into the eerie intrusion of something otherworldly. Horan is also careful not to let his actors indulge too much in the potential melodrama the circumstances may suggest.

If there is a fault in Kinahan’s otherwise finely crafted script, it is the articulacy with which Patricia and especially Seán are able to express their condition. For anyone who has had to witness the mental or physical decay of an elderly loved one, it is the moments of silence and the frustrated inability to adequately articulate the experience of fading away that cuts the deepest. Patricia never seems at a loss for the right words to describe her plight, and Sean’s transformation from near catatonia to exhibiting flashes of theatrical grandeur rings slightly false. There’s a poetic potential in stutters and false starts, and in losing the fight to properly convey, concisely and clearly, how utterly undone one can be by old age and infirmity. That potential is missed here. Still, the isolation that Patricia and Seán experience does come across well, and is expertly echoed by designer Maree Kearns crumbling conservatory. Conveying a strange, frosted fishbowl quality, the conservatory belies its role as a realistic setting, becoming, through Kevin Smith’s fluid lighting design, a sort of way station or threshold between the world of the living and the dead.

What is remarkable about Kinahan’s play is the way it couches a rather radical statement on the right to end one’s life in a manner they so choose in such warm, heartfelt material. Death still remains such a taboo in our society that we seek to section off those who are facing it down in nursing homes and care centres, where they won’t have to remind us of the decline we all will face. To have them cared for in our midst would undermine the perpetual promise of youth touted on billboards and in commercials, and teach us that to die is a simple fact of life.

Jesse Weaver was awarded a PhD in Theatre Studies from UCC, and is a playwright.

  • Review
  • Theatre

Dublin Theatre Festival: Halcyon Days by Deirdre Kinahan

10-14 Oct 2012

Produced by Tall Tales Theatre Company and Solstice Arts Centre
In Smock Alley Theatre

Director: David Horan
Set & Costume Designer: Maree Kearns
Lighting Designer: Kevin Smith

Featuring Anita Reeves and Stephen Brennan