Abbey Theatre, Dublin
Opened 29 September, 2003

Thomas Kilroy's The Shape Of Metal is the Abbey Theatre's flagship production in this year's Dublin Theatre Festival, and true to the author's form it is both fundamentally simple and intellectually and emotionally complex at the same time. It's not always an easy balance to keep. At the end of her life and career, a famous sculptress argues with her younger daughter about the disappearance of her elder some thirty years before. The latter appears in dream, memory and flashback. The relationships of the artist to art, of family to family, of each of these to the other, of woman to the world in general, weave in and out of Nell and Judith's exchanges and come to illuminate the departure of Grace.

That's a heavy name to carry, and it's signalled in the opening dream-monologue when the vanished girl describes a sculpture of her as "Stone or metal to be transformed into Grace". For a second, we don't quite hear the capital letter of the personal name, and interpret it metaphysically; we likewise half-mishear a moment later, when she speaks of "Mummy kneading the head". Nell needs the head, all right, to rationalise away areas of her life, and to commandeer others' and claim them for herself.

Lynne Parker's production is as bare of devices as Kilroy's writing: you can, so to speak, see all the musculature on the frame, articulating almost free of adornment. Sara Kestelman hits the golden mean between elderly curmudgeonliness and the wistfulness of Beckett's later female protagonists in pieces such as Rockaby; indeed, the second act recounts a fictitious Paris meeting with Beckett and Giacometti. Eleanor Methven as Judith succeeds in fleshing out the character of the child of an artist who remains, so to speak, earthbound while her sister Grace (Justine Mitchell) buckles under the strain, with slight echoes of James Joyce's daughter Lucia.

Kilroy gets obtrusively self-conscious in the play's later stages, whether in stagecraft (Grace's second-act taped monologue is an unnecessarily explicit nod to Beckett, especially after Nell has fumbled, Krapp-like, in a tin of old diaries) or by over-signalling his metaphorical intent. The characters and emotions speak most trenchantly to us when left to their more discreet devices.

Written for the Financial Times.

Copyright © Ian Shuttleworth; all rights reserved.

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