Molly Sweeney

Dawn Bradfield in Brian Friel's 'Molly Sweeney'. Photo: Matthew Thompson

Dawn Bradfield in Brian Friel's 'Molly Sweeney'. Photo: Matthew Thompson

Michael Byrne in Brian Friel's 'Molly Sweeney'. Photo: Matthew Thompson

Michael Byrne in Brian Friel's 'Molly Sweeney'. Photo: Matthew Thompson

Peter Hanly in Brian Friel's 'Molly Sweeney'. Photo: Matthew Thompson

Peter Hanly in Brian Friel's 'Molly Sweeney'. Photo: Matthew Thompson

Brian Friel’s 1994 play Molly Sweeney is rarely performed, perhaps because there are so many better Friel plays to choose from. This is not to suggest that Molly Sweeney is a bad play, but when placed alongside the radical experiments of early plays like Philadelphia, Here I Come!, the potent politics and epic love story of Translations, or the joyous celebration of life and lament for lost culture that is Dancing at Lughnasa, the monologues of Molly Sweeney seem a cautious, modest affair. Of course, one of Friel’s greatest plays, 1979’s Faith Healer, takes the form of interweaving monologues, but Faith Healer was concerned with interrogating the form of the confessional by playing with the idea of the truth. Molly Sweeney, on the other hand, is a straightforward exercise in shared storytelling, as the history of Molly Sweeney’s miraculous cure from blindness is narrated from three perspectives, which all agree on the nature of and catalyst for her tragedy.

For those familiar with Friel’s plays, there is much in Molly Sweeney that re-treads earlier territory. The geography of Ballybeg, the fictional town where all of Friel’s original plays are set, is a familiar one, and in Molly Sweeney echoes are established through the ritual naming of landmarks. Lough Anna, for example, where Rose in Dancing at Lughnasa disappeared to and where Gar in Philadelphia, Here I Come! holds the false memory of his father’s blue boat. Meanwhile, Abyssinia/Ethiopia where Father Jack in Dancing at Lughnasa worked as missionary is recast as the obsession of Molly’s husband Frank, whose name and blind optimism recalls Faith Healer’s Frank Hardy. There is a touch of the visionary healer about Mr Rice, Molly’s ophthalmologist too, who sees in Molly one last chance at redemption. And Molly, of course, with her aching sense of self-exile and homesickness, calls to mind dozens of earlier protagonists; from his very first play these have been Friel’s defining themes.

Dawn Bradfield as Molly Sweeney. Photo: Matthew ThompsonMolly Sweeney has been blind since birth and the play catches up with Molly in her 41st year, when her husband, the irrepressibly enthusiastic Frank, convinces her to undergo an operation to heal her sight. The bombastic Mr Rice is equally convinced that Molly can be healed, and the operations are indeed a success. What Friel is interested in exploring, however, is the false promise of restored sight; there is a difference between seeing and understanding, we are told, and as Molly regains her sight, the world she has built up around herself through her senses is exposed in a new and frightening way. The occasion of her healing is thus traumatic not restorative, and Molly “retreats into a world neither sighted nor unsighted but of her own making” - a fantasy world, a “borderline reality”, where the present recedes and the past becomes her future.

While the premise for the play is intellectually fascinating – an Oliver Sacks-style story of neurological miracles – the form is too dense and static to be that successful as a staged drama. Director Patrick Mason attempts to bring movement to the play by having the characters walk slowly between the angled chairs of Paul Keogan’s clinical waiting-room setting, but the characters seem limited rather than liberated by the deliberate choreography. There is one exception. When Molly is not delivering her lines, she stands for the most part upstage, hand against the wall in a bluish half-light. This is a provocative, stilled image that suggests that Molly is testing the limits of her space, although by the end of the play she has no interest in pushing the real boundaries of her disability anymore, and has retreated entirely into a fantasy world instead; as if to reflect this, she sits unmoving centre-stage in the final scene.

Peter-Hanly-as-Frank-Sweeney.jpgMolly is played by the quietly beautiful Dawn Bradfield, who brings an emotional, if not physical truth, to her portrayal of blindness; her gestures are theatrical in a way which seems at odds with a woman unaware of her own physical performance or of being watched. Peter Hanly brings a manic energy to the jittery and unfocused Frank, providing the production with many humorous moments, and it is a relief to remember how funny Friel’s plays can be. Michael Byrne, meanwhile, gives an emotional performance as Mr Rice, although there are occasional problems with the pace of his delivery. Indeed on opening night the production in general seemed not to have yet found its rhythm; there wasn’t quite enough pause left between the interweaving monologues, suggesting the straightforward thrust of a single storytelling voice rather than discrete individual voices.

This is, in fact, Molly Sweeney’s biggest shortcoming: the uniformity of its style. Each of the characters uses a similar register of expression, despite their different backgrounds. They all repeatedly uses the word “anyhow”, for example, to bridge the gaps between their diverging trains of thought, and the linguistic echoes that permeate each characters' revelations remind us of the authorial voice behind the whole charade.

Of course, that authorial voice belongs to Friel, one of the greatest playwrights in Irish theatre history. And even a lesser Friel work is worth revisiting, no matter its structural flaws.

Sara Keating writes about theatre for The Irish Times and The Sunday Business Post.

  • Review
  • Theatre

Molly Sweeney by Brian Friel

28 June - 23 July, 2011

Produced by the Gate Theatre
In the Gate Theatre

Directed by Patrick Mason

Lighting and Set Design: Paul Keogan

Costume Design: Joan O’Clery

Sound Design: Denis Clohessy

With: Dawn Bradfield, Michael Byrne and Peter Hanly