Heart and home

Tom Murphy’s The House exposes the returning emigrant’s frail sense of place, says Pádraic Killeen

Heart and home

PROFOUNDLY sad, yet laced with black comedy, the Abbey Theatre’s revival of Tom Murphy’s play The House is a major production this summer.

Set in 1950s Ireland, the plot hinges on the auction of an idyllic estate and the attempt of a returned emigrant, Christy (Declan Conlon), to purchase it. Christy is from the ‘wrong side of the tracks’ but has made money in England, albeit by indecent means. Returning to his hometown during the ‘builders’ holidays’, like his friends and fellow emigrants Peter (Frank Laverty) and Goldfish (Karl Shiels), Christy is alarmed to learn that the De Burca family — the elegant remnants of an old Ascendancy clan — are auctioning their estate. In awe of the De Burcas since childhood, Christy wants to buy the house to preserve his own dreams of home, of identity, and of a cherished innocence. All that stands in the way is grim and unforgiving reality.

The House is directed by Annabelle Comyn, who last year presided over a similarly impressive production of GB Shaw’s Pygmalion, also at the Abbey. Comyn is the artistic director of her own company, Hatch.

Comyn allows The House space and time to breathe. It’s a mammoth production, with a large cast and a lengthy running-time, but it’s not hurried or cluttered. Murphy’s themes are expressed with clarity, particularly his concern with the emigrant’s fate — being unable to find peace anywhere.

“All of the emigrants in the play are stunted in their growth in many ways,” says Comyn, “and they come back to try to reconnect with what they think Ireland means to them. The play deals very much with reality and dream, and the dream of what home is, and what it needs to be in order for them to continue living in the harsh reality abroad. Because, I think, they all lead difficult lives. So they’re very conflicted when they come back and their whole sense of identity is under threat.”

In the scenario of the emigrants’ annual return, Murphy — perhaps our greatest living dramatist — locates a frantic hive of psychological and emotional tensions. These tensions chiefly exist between those still living in the town and those who have left. There is an open hostility between them. The House is not a flattering snapshot of small-town ’50s Ireland.

“There is a sense of prejudice toward the emigrants returning home and prejudice, also, toward people who are seemingly other, like the De Burcas,” says Comyn. It is this prejudice, she says, and the social division it sows, that leads both to the aggression that bubbles to the surface and to the play’s tragic developments.

“Christy is a good man at heart,” says Comyn. “But he’s been pushed into a corner, as they all have. By the end, all of the emigrants have become exactly what those who stayed behind want them to be, in order that they might vindicate their own decision to stay.”

Like the three Murphy plays revived this summer by Druid in the DruidMurphy project, The House is prominently concerned with emigration. As ever with Murphy, there’s much more going on. While delivering a candid account of the toll of emigration, Murphy also uses the emigrant experience to address the strange weaves of dream and reality that inform human identity. Hence, in his hometown, Christy shirks any mention of his ignoble everyday life in London and wishes, instead, to surrender himself to a pastoral fantasy of home and belonging. Yet it is the brute reality of his own unstable desires and emotions that will bring him and this fantasy to a tragic pass. Similarly, Susanne (Catherine Walker), the youngest of the De Burca sisters, herself working in shady circumstances in England, wishes to keep separate her reality and dream worlds, yet cannot do so.

“When I first read the play, I felt very much that The House was about identity and how we try to hold on to an image of ourselves, even if it’s not the reality of who we are,” says Comyn. “I think we all need an ambition of self, and I think that, for Christy, and for all of them, the stark realities of ’50s Ireland creates a heightened need for a dream of self. So the house becomes, for Susanne as much as for Christy, a struggle to preserve one’s identity.”

Notably, all of the De Burca women — headed by Eleanor Methven’s enchanting matriarch — are fascinating creatures. They are palpably ‘real people’ and yet also seem to belong to a world of fairytale. Murphy, Comyn, and each of the actresses, give these women extraordinary depth. Ironically, as Murphy himself is fond of recalling, the playwright was accosted by a female audience member at the premiere of A Whistle in the Dark. She told him that he couldn’t write female characters.

“Well, in this play,” says Comyn, “I think he writes extraordinarily for women. What’s interesting is that you have a woman of one generation and then you have her daughters, three women of the next generation, and I think he captures wonderfully what the mother’s hopes for her children would be, and her despair that all of them are in some ways damaged. She lives with the reality that their lives are disappearing on them.”

The House is a subtle meditation on Irish history, and in the character of Mrs De Burca offers a ‘mother Ireland’ whose misfortune is to witness her country give way to ignorance and corruption.

“I think Mrs De Burca is very much of the generation that saw Ireland become a free state and had hope for a nation of united and open people,” says Comyn. “She believed in this very liberal, open and inclusive society, but now she is living with the conservatism and emotional austerity of ’50s Ireland, which is so divisive.”

After The House, Comyn’s attention will turn to a new play, also set in 1950s Ireland. A joint endeavour by her own company, Hatch and Landmark Productions, The Talk of the Town is a play about Irish writer Maeve Brennan. Written by Emma Donoghue, author of Room, it will premiere during the Dublin Theatre Festival.

“It’s set in New York but is juxtaposed with Brennan’s writing, which is set in Ireland,” says Comyn. “Brennan moved to America with her family, but she didn’t return home when they did. I think she was quite conflicted herself in her attitude to home. She wrote obsessively about the Ireland she grew up in, yet she lived a very glamorous life among the literati of New York.

“That was quite contradictory, in some ways, and there was possibly some emotional conflict there.”

* The House runs until Jul 14

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