The Seafarer

Liam Carney in The Seafarer (publicity image).

Liam Carney in The Seafarer (publicity image).

Reviewed during the original run, 14th May 2008.

Following on from a hugely successful National Theatre London premiere production that recently garnered four Tony nominations for its Broadway transfer, the Abbey production had a serious benchmark to match. A last-minute cast change had forced the opening night to be postponed by a week further raising the bar of expectation. Having seen the London production, I was convinced that this was McPherson’s best play to date but I always knew that its rightful home was in Dublin.

Jimmy Fay’s production does not disappoint; he knows the material well and more importantly he understands fully the mechanics of how this play works on an audience. Set in a north Dublin living room of the blind Richard Sharkin on Christmas Eve, we see how men alone cope with their alcoholism, loneliness and failed marriages as they drink themselves into Christmas Day. Fay unlocks the key to this play right from the beginning directing a sequence of hilarious comic business based on some sharp observation from all his actors. As Christmas Eve dawns the house wakes up and one by one we discover the men coping with their hangovers from the night before. At the forefront of this business is neighbour Ivan Curry (played by Don Wycherley) who stumbles around the room, half-blind having lost his glasses, and disoriented with drink and dehydration. Wycherley performs this masterfully finding meaning in every incomplete sentence, making half-moves, half-gestures and triple-taking the situation constantly. But this is not just comedy for the gallery; this is the comedy of everyday reality based on pain and suffering and of a life that has gone out of control.

As a wonderful counterpoint to this performance of haplessness, Liam Carney, as the returned prodigal brother Sharky, plays the ‘straight’ man of the double act. On the wagon for two days, Carney runs around the house coping with the mess left by the others in a sequence of the finest detail. And finally his blind brother appears (played by Maelíosa Stafford) totally dependent on the others for help. Stafford plays Richard at times as the loveable drunk, and at others as the violent alcoholic. His mood swings are the principle source of tension in the early part of the play and they destabilise much of the comedy. Later, another neighbour Nicky Giblin is added to the set; he is now living with Sharky’s wife and children. Phelim Drew plays him as both pretentious and arrogant (with shades and a cocky walk), but clearly also as a man who cannot match the other men (drinks bottled beer instead of poitín and wears Versace).

The night in question - and indeed the play as a whole - hinges on the arrival of a Mr Lockhart (George Costigan) who belongs to another class (he lives in Howth, with a full wallet, and has an English accent). And this is where Fay’s decision to push the comedy of the early part of the play pays off. Lockhart isolates Sharky and starts to mentally torture him with questions about the failures of his life. Clearly, Lockhart is the stuff of fable, a Mephistopheles who unleashes the demons lurking underneath the surface of the other men. And within seconds of isolating Sharky he has him writhing in pain on the floor, not through physical violence but through psychological torture. The play suddenly turns black and this sudden turn is such a turnabout from the first part that it is all the darker and more sinister. Thereafter the production swings between these moments of darkness and comic lightness until dawn arrives and an all-night game of poker comes to a rather surprising conclusion. Sharky is pitted against the devil-incarnate Lockhart and the battle is won on a sudden, but hilarious comic twist by McPherson in the form of Ivan Curry regaining total vision (he finally finds his glasses) to win the game.

Paul O’Mahony’s set mirrors the squalor of the single male alcoholic, and the main props are those necessary for the men’s survival (battered sofa, fire, and empty beer cans) but there is a nod to normality in the form of a Christmas tree. Hilariously, however, the lights only reach halfway up the tree. A prominent picture of the Sacred Heart complete with votive candle sits like a guardian angel at the top of the stairs looking down on the men protectively. Sinéad Wallace’s lighting design adds some grim and spooky touches to the proceedings with a flickering votive light and lightning to accompany Lockhart’s devilish struggle at the end of the play.

McPherson brings his characters back from the brink of self-destruction exposing their human failings but allowing them to find solace in each other’s company. And Jimmy Fay’s impeccable cast play up the failings comically as a counterpoint to the demons that threaten to sink them completely. This production is proof that the play will remain in the Abbey repertoire for many generations to come; it has the comfortable accessibility and familiarity for a popular audience and more than a hint of the universally tragic to ensure its place in the canon of Irish theatre.

Brian Singleton is Head of Drama at Trinity College Dublin.

  • Review
  • Theatre

The Seafarer by Conor McPherson

03 May - 07 June 2008; 9 Dec 2009 - 30 Jan 2010

Produced by Abbey Theatre
In Abbey Stage

Directed by Jimmy Fay

Set Design: Paul O’Mahoney

Lighting Design: Sinéad Wallace

Costume Design: Niamh Lunny

Sound Design: Denis Clohessy

With: Liam Carney, George Costigan*, Phelim Drew, Maelíosa Stafford, Don Wycherley

(*In the 2009 production, Nick Dunning replaces George Costigan as Lockhart.)