The Sylvia

'The Sylvia' by Philip St. John directed by Liam Halligan at Smock Alley. Photo: Ste Murray

'The Sylvia' by Philip St. John directed by Liam Halligan at Smock Alley. Photo: Ste Murray

'The Sylvia' by Philip St. John directed by Liam Halligan at Smock Alley. Photo: Ste Murray

'The Sylvia' by Philip St. John directed by Liam Halligan at Smock Alley. Photo: Ste Murray

'The Sylvia' by Philip St. John directed by Liam Halligan at Smock Alley. Photo: Ste Murray

'The Sylvia' by Philip St. John directed by Liam Halligan at Smock Alley. Photo: Ste Murray

A struggling artist’s studio retreat is invaded by a high-powered couple intent on collecting what they view as artist’s most achieved work to date: his young wife and recovering heroin addict, Sylvia (Anna Sheils McNamee).

Barry’s (John Delaney) series of paintings capturing Sylvia’s past life of prostitution and drug addiction had made him, however briefly, an art world sensation. But the effects of that success have long been winding down. Nick and Shelly (Matthew Ralli and Gillian McCarthy) have made Sylvia an object of their mutual sexual fantasies since obtaining the bulk of Barry’s paintings of her, and they’ve come to collect on an offer Sylvia herself has made: €60,000 for one night of passion with her, plus Barry’s surrendering of the last painting in the series. While Barry refuses to part with the painting - which, according Sylvia, idealises her as a paragon of domesticity - he is eventually convinced by Sylvia and her pursuers to allow the orgy to take place. The consequences of carrying out the deal ultimately force Sylvia to decide between playing into the persona others construct for her and striking out to determine her own identity.

Philip St. John’s drama attempts an exploration of the uneasy relationship between the viewer and the viewed, the slippery politics of exploitation, and the shifting value placed on constructed images. For Barry, Nick and Shelly, Sylvia serves as a blank canvas readily marked with whatever fetish their gaze fixes on her. Despite the lascivious cravings expressed by Sylvia’s pursuers, there’s still something sort of traditional about the dynamics in this kind of patriarchal arrangement. The idealized object of desire here, both in terms of sex and aesthetics, is female, and she’s perceived as a victim lacking genuine agency, a shifting figure with a distinct lack of morality whose eagerness to please barely masks a single-minded need to fulfill a base, abject addiction. And it’s the male gaze that ultimately corners and delimits Sylvia’s identity here, despite Shelly’s professed attraction to her, an attraction that only seems to follow Nick’s aggressive lead. The sense is that the play is late to the argument that the female body in our culture is treated primarily as commodified object, to be bought or sold depending on the whims of the (male determined) market.

Photo: Ste MurrayRegardless, St. John does make this familiar argument compelling, and works to offer an additional critique by linking the ups and downs of the value of art, body and image to the fluidities of economic exchange and valuation in the midst of the recent financial crash. In broad strokes, his narrative is cleverly constructed as a diptych, where the second half offers us a mirror image of the first, but with inverted positions of power and privilege. The haves are suddenly the have nots, and are forced to try to negotiate with art objects that have steadily been drained of their market value. These reversals, along with some sharp turns of phrase, are the most satisfying aspect of St. John’s script, and achieve their greatest effect in the disturbing child/parent dynamic that exists between Nick, Shelly and Sylvia, even as they continue to seek her out for sexual release.

Director Liam Halligan has worked well with his actors in shaping St. John’s pithy dialogue, the texture of which recalls the sly menace of Harold Pinter or Philip Ridley. The actors do seem to struggle at times engendering a meaningful connection to one another. Sure, it’s clear the primary intention here is not necessarily to draft characters we should wholly sympathize with. But the deterioration of Barry and Sylvia’s relationship would perhaps have had more impact if the possibility were floated, either textually or in performance, that a genuine affection had existed between them once. As it is, their arrangement seems purely based on material exchange. All well and good given the play’s theme, but the introduction of real attraction and affection might open an opportunity for a deeper investment in their relationship, making the play’s outcome all that more poignant.

Marcus Costello’s blank canvas set facilitates the action well, shifting us out of Barry’s worn studio into Nick and Shelly’s upscale digs, while resonances of each are felt through the strategic placing of a couch or table. By doing so he ultimately echoes St. John’s dramaturgical role reversal and the play’s broader theme: identity is in the eye of the beholder.

Jesse Weaver completed his doctoral thesis at University College Cork in 2011. His research focus was on the changing roles of the playwright in Irish theatre production from 1980 to 2010.

  • Review
  • Theatre

The Sylvia by Philip St John

25 Feb - 9 March, 2013

Produced by Collaborations 2013
In Smock Alley

Directed by Liam Halligan

Design: Marcus Costello

With: John Delaney, Anna Sheils McNamee, Matthew Ralli and Gillian McCarthy


Play development supported by Fishamble: The New Play Company’s New Play Clinic scheme.