The Seafarer

Ciaran McIntyre in 'The Seafarer' at the Lyric Theatre, Belfast. Photo: Eamonn McGoldrick.

Ciaran McIntyre in 'The Seafarer' at the Lyric Theatre, Belfast. Photo: Eamonn McGoldrick.

Benny Young in 'The Seafarer' at the Lyric Theatre, Belfast. Photo: Eamonn McGoldrick

Benny Young in 'The Seafarer' at the Lyric Theatre, Belfast. Photo: Eamonn McGoldrick

“Why this is hell, nor am I out of it,” reflects Faustus, as the darkness closes in during his final moments on this earth. So it is with the derelict assortment of friends at the core of Conor McPherson’s Faustian-inspired tryst with the devil. The demon drink is the hell which engulfs them all as they gather on Christmas Eve to carouse and gamble their way into Christmas Day. But for James ‘Sharky’ Harkin (Louis Dempsey) – the seafarer of the title – what is at stake is something infinitely more damaging than mere physical, psychological and domestic destruction.

In the hands of Rachel O‘Riordan, The Seafarer is at last receiving its Scottish and Northern Irish premieres via a co-production between the Lyric Theatre in Belfast and Perth Theatre, of which she is artistic director. This spellbinding revival fully justifies her faith in its power.

Its immediate impact is due in no small measure to Gary McCann’s set, whose crumbling height and depth, and minutely detailed dressing, take the breath away. Such is its scale and proximity that one feels entrapped by the squalor of this shambolic house on the north side of Dublin, whose rickety open staircase – a death trap for the inebriated – leads up to the unseen front door and the world outside.

Photo: Eamonn McGoldrickThis is the place where, over many years, Richard Harkin (Ciaran McIntyre) has got dirty drunk and laid his bleary head. He has accumulated all manner of knick knacks and holy pictures and mismatched furniture and empty bottles. To celebrate the festive season, he has put up a wobbly little tree, adorned with half a set of fairy lights. The living room, with integrated kitchen and lavatory, oozes neglect and hints at all manner of unpleasant odours. The reality is that, while existing in it, he has never properly seen it and now he is unable even to do that, since completely losing his sight.

Richard’s younger brother Sharky has returned from working in the west of Ireland and is temporarily off the booze, recovering from yet another disastrous episode in his eventful life. By default, he has become Richard’s guardian and gofer. The household is completed by their old friend Ivan Curry (Sean O’Callaghan), who has taken up temporary residence since his wife Karen showed him the door. They form a close-knit trio, united by long ties of friendship and a hopeless addiction to alcohol.

The well-meaning Ivan has committed a serious faux pas by inviting another friend Nicky Giblin (Tony Flynn) to the house for a few drinks and a game of cards. Nicky arrives, all big talk and sunglasses, accompanied by a refined, shadowy stranger, whom he introduces as Mr. Lockhart (Benny Young).

Buoyed up by Christmas spirit and seasonal revelry, they embark on a game of poker, which meanders on and on and on. Ivan has mislaid his spectacles and, without them, is as blind as a bat. He comically opts to act as Richard’s eyes. As copious quantities of drink are consumed and the clock ticks away, the craic and the tall tales flow. Money is thrown into the pot and the tension rises as, one by one, the hands are revealed. Yet, the quietly watchful visitor – cleverly rendered by the casting of Young, a Scottish actor – remains detached, insulated by his exclusive knowledge that what is actually at stake is a man’s soul.

The fine cast, pushed to the top of their game by O’Riordan’s searching direction, adeptly navigate the ingenious twists and turns of McPherson’s dramatic storytelling. Using an intoxicating mix of dodgy charm and misplaced blarney, these dysfunctional social misfits coax the audience onto their side, including them in the laughter and yarn-spinning, sharing the hilarious irony of Richard’s ongoing battle with the local winos, who mess up his alleyway with urine, vomit and worse. Then, without warning, the comfort zone is shattered. Kevin Treacy’s mellow lighting design turns sinister and cold. Debra Salem's soundscape sounds an eerie note. The laughter stops abruptly.

Photo: Eamonn McGoldrickIn appearance and age difference, it is a little difficult to accept Sharky and Richard as brothers, though both Dempsey and McIntyre turn in near-faultless individual performances. Sharky wears the tormented look of a man who has been to hell and back, his handsome features battered and bruised after an encounter with some local roughnecks. He covers up his dark deeds with a carefully controlled, easy-going fa├žade, but turns ugly and threatening when Lockhart suddenly reveals the truth of a terrible event from his past.

McIntyre’s Richard is an irascible, cantankerous old soak, whose idiosyncrasies throw ever-changing light onto the complex, see-saw relationship with his brother. One minute he is a lovable rogue, clapping his knees together in childlike delight, his face lighting up at the clink of a bottle; the next, he is nothing less than a demanding, bullying monster.

We may not see any women, but they are there, their physical absence making its own point. Flynn’s leery, wise-cracking Nicky, offers a brief glimpse of family life – albeit a family that is not his own. He is now shacked up with Sharky’s estranged wife and kids, a thorny situation deftly revealed during a terse phone call in the small hours of the morning.

At the melancholy heart of the production is a singularly charismatic performance. O’Callaghan plays Ivan as a gentle giant, tremulous, hesitant, generous of spirit. Much as he may love his wife and kids, he loves the drink more and he fears that his family have reached the end of the road with him.

And there it is, this daring, deeply philosophical play, which seems doomed to end very badly. But a wonderfully amusing plot twist wrenches the friends back into some kind of normality and offers Sharky an unexpected second chance to escape a fate far worse than death.

Jane Coyle is a Belfast-based freelance arts journalist and critic, who also contributes to The Irish Times, The Stage, Culture Northern Ireland and BBC Radio Ulster.

  • Review
  • Theatre

The Seafarer by Conor McPherson

27 Feb - 23 March, 2013

Produced by Lyric Theatre and Perth Theatre
In Lyric Theatre

Directed by Rachel O’Riordan

Set and Costume Design: Gary McCann

Lighting Design: Kevin Treacy

Sound Design: Debra Salem

With: Louis Dempsey, Tony Flynn, Ciaran McIntyre, Sean O’Callaghan & Benny Young