'Perfidia' by Jimmy Murphy presented at Theatre Upstairs at Lanigans.

'Perfidia' by Jimmy Murphy presented at Theatre Upstairs at Lanigans.

Jimmy Murphy’s new play Perfidia is ostensibly a probing of the national psyche in the wake of the collapse of the Celtic Tiger - though there is little allusion to that in the opening moments of the production, bar a solitary Sherry Fitzgerald sign. Metallic, industrial sounds drone before turning into melodic chimes. A somnolent Niamh (Una Kavanagh) wanders the threadbare stage. She tidies two badly-stacked boxes. She puts two family photos on a small table. She takes all of the change out of her pockets and throws it on the ground, before settling into a chair and staring into the deep distance. In all, a jarring minute or two pass before any words are spoken. Even those first lines – a phonecall to her father’s voicemail to leave a vague message of apology – are elusive. So it was somewhat unsettling that play’s narrative, when unfurled, deals with subject matter that is so familiar, so well-trodden.

The national obsession with property that was the cause of Ireland’s economic ruination has been the locus of a lot of art that reckons with the state of the nation after the crash. In Perfidia, a repossessed apartment provides a springboard for Murphy to examine the depths of the class divide in Ireland.

On the day in question, this apartment will be taken off a middle-class woman and given to a working class woman. By coincidence, they meet outside the building. Niamh’s story is a contemporary horror story we know well: she had quit her job in advertising to open a cafĂ© near Christchurch. After it went under, she had no income to pay the exorbitant mortgage on the dingy apartment on the edge of Dublin she bought with her partner at the height of the boom. Niamh’s partner has already jumped ship to Canada and the flat is about to seized by bailiffs. She never speaks of the future, and it takes the arrival of the apartment’s new occupant, Ciara (Roseanne Purcell) and her gaudy earrings and shining silver bag to jolt Niamh from her fugue of resignation. Ciara, a 24-year-old mother of three children (with three different men), has been awarded the flat by the social housing authority. For Niamh, this is a final injustice.

The tension between Ireland’s middle- and working-classes is one that is rarely examined in our contemporary culture. It is certainly a divide that has been exacerbated by the harsh of the IMF bailout, as constant public vs private sector debates on drivetime radio allude to. Murphy chooses to represent both sides of the class gulf as diametrically-opposed caricatures. Ciara speaks with a brash working-class Dublin accent and is a product of the system. She doesn’t work, struggles to see a world beyond her three children and is empowered by her entitlement. Niamh is the softly-spoken, well-meaning victim of the property bubble, hoodwinked by greedy bankers, guilty of only wanting a better life.

Perfidia does not provide the space for the two characters to subvert their somewhat stock roles, but thankfully, under Peter Gaynor's direction, the two actors are able to dig deep enough to locate genuine depth within Ciara and Niamh. In a less-accomplished actor’s hands, Ciara might have become a depressingly two-dimensional send-up of a working class young woman, but Purcell turns her into someone brash and hilarious who yearns for something that her children cannot provide. Kavanagh capably portrays her character’s maelstrom, though the audience’s experience of everything that takes place in the play is altered entirely by a dark twist in the finale.

There is no set as such, and the sightlines in the debut performance for Theatre Upstairs at its new venue in Lanigans on Eden Quay were challenging at times. Interestingly, Peter Gaynor’s production is strongest when it is distancing itself from the familiar tale of recessionary woe. Those absorbing first silent moments provide a stark contrast to the melodramatic finale, when Ciara uncovers the secret to Niamh’s erratic behaviour. But even for sufferers of recession fatigue, it was a pleasure to watch these two actors establish a sort of common ground in humanity for their irreconcilable characters.

Donald Mahoney

  • Review
  • Theatre

Perfidia by Jimmy Murphy

6 - 14 July, 2012

Produced by Peter Gaynor
In Theatre Upstairs @ Lanigan's

Directed by Peter Gaynor

Lighting and Set: Andy Cummings

Sound Design: Peter Gaynor

With: Roseanne Purcell, Una Kavanagh