The Housekeeper

Ingrid Craigie & Robert O'Mahoney in Rough Magic's production of 'The Housekeeper' by Morna Regan. Photo: Pat Redmond

Ingrid Craigie & Robert O'Mahoney in Rough Magic's production of 'The Housekeeper' by Morna Regan. Photo: Pat Redmond

Cathy Belton in Rough Magic's production of 'The Housekeeper' by Morna Regan. Photo: Pat Redmond

Cathy Belton in Rough Magic's production of 'The Housekeeper' by Morna Regan. Photo: Pat Redmond

Ingrid Craigie in the Rough Magic production of 'The Housekeeper' by Morna Regan. Photo: Pat Redmond

Ingrid Craigie in the Rough Magic production of 'The Housekeeper' by Morna Regan. Photo: Pat Redmond

It’s rare nowadays to see a playwright weave together a plot using the classical unities as assuredly as Morna Regan does in The Housekeeper, her tale of post-recession desperation. No brief and choppy scenes or sudden blackouts here. The Aristotelian virtue of the unification of time, place and action is as solidly established as the walls of the Manhattan brownstone that serve as the play’s setting. Indeed, this adherence to classical structure hints at an aspiration to invoke a mythic resonance within a modern context. The grand concrete columns of Bláithín Sheerin’s interior actually suggests the exterior of the palaces or temples of Greek tragedy, and, under Lynne Parker's direction, the projected majesty of the acting ensemble’s fierce performances point to a tragic grandeur worthy of Sophocles. However, talk of house repossessions, lay offs, and bank failures brings the play off the marbled pedestal of classical structure and back down to the grimy reality of the faded glory of a moneyed family gone to pot.

The first few moments of the play introduce us to Mary (Cathy Belton), a woman whose recent string of financial misfortunes has forced her and her three children to live out of an old station wagon. At wit’s end, Mary decides to set up house in the once opulent digs of Beth Patten (Ingrid Craigie), an aging New York socialite. The two have never met; Beth's life viewed from afar was once a daydream distraction for Mary, who worked in the neighbourhood. Now it presents itself as her last option for survival, as Mary finally decides in a moment of frenzied desperation to squat in Beth’s study. When Beth discovers Mary figuratively putting down stakes after forcibly letting herself into the house, a pitched negotiation about how Mary will earn the right to stay takes place.

This opening gambit proves a little flat, a result of Parker’s stilted staging of the play’s first few moments, robbing them of the slow-building menace suggested in Regan’s taut script. It takes a few minutes for the sharpness of Regan’s writing to come through. Mary’s litany of betrayals suffered at the hands of a corrupt financial system, while powerfully articulated through Belton’s strong performance, nonetheless comes across after nearly four soul-deadening years of recession economics as stale agitprop. Beth’s patrician ripostes to these accusations also seem somewhat half-hearted. Luckily this two dimensional display of class warfare gives way to the far more interesting conflict cooked up with the arrival on the scene of Beth’s disease-ridden husband, Hal (Robert O’Mahoney), who Mary had thought was dead.

Photo: Pat RedmondIt’s with Hal’s arrival that the play assumes, to some degree, its mythic dimension. Lumbering slowly through the upstage doorway, O’Mahoney’s Hal projects all the grotesque gravitas of a Titan resurrected after a centuries-old slumber. The deal struck between Mary and Beth is thus: look after the perverse and incontinent Hal as live-in housekeeper, and Mary and her children can stay rent-free. Effectively coloured by Craigie’s artful fusion of cold calculation and disarming vulnerability, Hal and Beth’s vicious backbiting reveals a history of ritualistic, psychological punishment centred on the absence of their child. Resonances with Albee’s Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf are felt, but, unlike the complex emotional relationship established by George and Martha in that play, overall it’s hard here to distinguish anything beyond a routine masochism practiced by Hal and Beth (which is admittedly entertaining nonetheless). If this is what Regan has aimed for, she’s done so with a great deal of skill and panache, but it’s hard to feel anything beyond gleefulness in witnessing such inspired vitriol, as well as an easily earned sense of moral superiority over these two ‘Manhattan Pattens’. The obvious depth and intelligence of Regan's writing demands something more considered in crafting Hal and Beth’s relationship, and the lack of any kind of love or affection (twisted or otherwise) within the pair makes the conflict driving this relationship somewhat unsatisfying.

Parker pushes the Gothic realism of the piece significantly, evidenced by the ghoulishness of Hal’s physicality and the impressive chiaroscuro of Sarah Jane Shiels' lighting. As a result, a smothering layer of elements denoting a sensationalist psychological thriller undermines the potential for genuine human connection. But this directorial approach of ratcheting up the more sensational elements of the play is probably an attempt to pull together the disparate strands of Regan’s script: from the epic sweep of Greek tragedy, to damning social critique, to a deconstruction of class, to Gothic thriller, to an Ibsenite domestic drama - the production struggles to find a clear path through the material.

While Regan’s surface aim seems to be to present an epic treatment of the stark class differences that were inevitably foregrounded by the recent economic collapse, the core conflict at the heart of Beth and Hal’s relationship tugs the play bit by bit towards the intimacy of domestic family drama. And it’s this inherent tendency towards intimacy, which feels like where the play ultimately wants to live, that undermines the grand sweep suggested by the unities Regan works so hard in establishing. This is an impressive piece of playwriting, but it leaves relatively untouched the truly compelling emotional life that could be lurking just beneath its surface.

Jesse Weaver has recently been awarded a PhD in Theatre Studies from UCC, and is a playwright.

  • Review
  • Theatre

The Housekeeper by Morna Regan

24 April - 12 May, 2012

Produced by Rough Magic
In Project Arts Centre

Directed by Lynne Parker

Assistant Director: Rosemary McKenna

Lighting Design: Sarah Jane Shiels

Set Design: Bláithín Sheerin

With: Cathy Belton, Ingrid Craigie and Robert O'Mahoney