A new play by Frank McGuinness is always an event. The author of such seminal works as The Factory Girls, Observe the Sons of Ulster Marching Towards the Somme and Someone Who’ll Watch Over Me, McGuinness has earned his reputation as one of Ireland’s most outstanding playwrights.
The Hanging Gardens is among his more modest, personal works. Set in the garden of a house in Buncrana, Donegal, the play concerns the coming together of a family of five. The father, Sam (Niall Buggy), is a novelist settling into his dotage, while his wife Jane (Barbara Brennan) labours at the ‘hanging gardens’ of the title: her work as a horticulturist has helped them secure their comfort. One son. Charlie (Declan Conlon), has stayed at home, ostensibly to look after them, while Maurice (Marty Rea), is a philosophy graduate who has returned from travelling the world. Their sister Rachel, meanwhile, is a barrister in Dublin who has become pregnant by an unknown man.
McGuinness teases out the various family relationships with consummate skill. All three of the adult children are revealed to be weak, and still dependent on their parents’ approval. Maurice remarks early on that they were discouraged from mingling as children, and they all have a keen sense of their parents’ house, Babylon, being the only place they know as home.
At the heart of the drama is their father’s mental disintegration. In one sense, he is the happiest of them all, but he is also given to outbursts of anger, at one point engaging in a surprising act of violence. Buggy plays him masterfully, teasing his wife and children, offering advice when it is not wanted and withholding it when it is asked of him. Jane emerges as a stoic character, sure of herself and not much given to sentimentality.
There is much talk among the children about what is to become of Babylon as their parents age. The only time the drama feels forced is when Charlie suddenly demands his share of the family estate.
But it is Sam who engages our sympathy as, surrounded by family as his faculties fail, he struggles to make himself understood.
Star Rating: 4/5
Commissioned and produced by Corcadorca, Pat McCabe’s new play has its share of small-town Ireland clichés.
There’s a controlling mammy (Geraldine Plunkett), a mammy’s boy (Walter), and a monsignor (Brendan Conroy) accused of paedophilia.
But there is more to this play. The characters are both amusing and dark as they celebrate mammy’s birthday. Throw into the mix Hoagy (Donagh Deeney), who arrives home from England declaring his depression is cured, and Connie (Kate O’Toole), a quietly seething former singer, married to Walter, and you’ve a potentially explosive gathering.
There is no plot. This is a portrait of dysfunction in a world that is bewildering to some of the characters. The monsignor, played with intensity by Conroy, talks of ‘Google town’ but doesn’t have the language to describe social networking. Walter, a mix of cynicism and cloying closeness to his mother, is defensive. But he perceptively says that all the possessions in the world, all the fame and glory, are nothing unless people can free themselves of their guilt and secrets.
All the characters have a dark side they vent. Even mammy, the supposed source of comfort, has her demons. She is embittered about her late husband, a “Radio Eireann star” who used to beat her. Almost casually, she says that if it hadn’t been for Walter, she’d have killed herself.
Plunkett gives a fine performance as the matriarch who resented the clerical response to the violence of her husband. She mocks the priestly advice to “offer it up.”
There is much mockery in this macabre play. What lurks beneath insists on coming to the surface, sometimes in just one, killer line. It is played in an exaggerated, anarchic style, and even the music from Mr Whippy’s ice-cream van sounds sinister.
* Continues until Oct 19
Star Rating: 4/5