Giles Croft's first production as director at Nottingham Playhouse since taking over its artistic helm has a well-known author (Brian Friel) and a well-known name in the cast (McGann... Joe of that ilk, to be precise), but is otherwise anything but ostentatious. Wonderful Tennessee is characteristic of several "minor" Friel plays – "minor" in the sense of key rather than necessarily of importance. It is one of those plays in which several people turn up at a particular spot, say things and feel things, then move on, as all the while the world turns. While they are before us, we do not feel compelled, exactly, not riveted, but sense a simple human kinship with them. The memory of them will not live on long or deeply with us; the fundamental empathy exists only while we are in their company. And all the while there is a hint of Something Else, something bigger; it does not loom, or obtrude, but simply flickers briefly a few times and then leaves the characters to get on with their ordinary lives.
In this case, a group of metropolitan thirty- or young fortysomethings – Terry (McGann) and Berna, the sister of each and their respective husbands – gather on the jetty of Friel's favourite fictional Donegal village of Ballybeg, waiting for a Godot of a boatman to take them over to the mysterious Eilean Dreachta offshore. Each of the six has a cross to bear, some large (Berna is an in-patient at a psychiatric clinic, George is terminally ill and prefers to address the world through his piano accordion rather than verbally), others just bear the everyday discontents and disappointments of the modern urban condition. Through a day and a night they hang about, consider each other's situations and the mystical past, both saintly and gruesome, of the island they can barely see, then leave, feeling for some indefinable reason a tiny bit the better for the experience.
It is effectively an ensemble work in which each character gets a fair crack of the whip, and Croft marshals his cast quietly and efficiently in that register. Music runs through the two hours of the piece, sometimes as a frivolous distraction, sometimes underpinning and amplifying the words beyond the capacity of verbals alone. The play ends with a series of unforced but sincerely meant observances as if the jetty were a holy well or wayside shrine... which, for the city folk, it has become - not offering miracle cures, but a palpable sense of restoration nevertheless. The play "says" nothing, except that sometimes people can be good for each other. Sometimes we, too, need reminding of that.
Written for the Financial Times.
Copyright © Ian Shuttleworth; all rights reserved.
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