Abbey Theatre, Dublin

Opened 9 October, 2009


As a playwright, Sebastian Barry has always been a master of storytelling, one of the forerunners of its uncrowned king in the Irish theatre, Conor McPherson. It is not surprising that Barry has also become an award-winning novelist. Tales Of Ballycumber is story after story, past and present, this world and at least one other, told with an elegiac power by author and characters alike. This is not your standard Celtic twilight, but rather the thickening dusk just before full nightfall.

It is falling, in general, upon rural townland life, as exemplified here in Ballycumber, a Protestant pocket straggling up the sides of a Wicklow mountain, where few farming families survive; and in particular upon Nicholas Farquhar, the late-middle-aged protagonist, alone, unmarried and seldom even visited in his slowly disintegrating farmhouse. He has no conversation save about the past, and a misfortunate past it is. When his young friend Evans confesses awkwardly to being in love and implicitly seeks Nicholas’s advice, he has nothing to offer but tales of folk dying, of unhappy shades and relentless decay; he does not even notice Evans’ state. When Evans acts on this unconsciously given counsel, Nicholas is placed on the rack by Evans’ father, by his own sister and by his memories, peopled principally by a ghostly girl from one of his stories and the mother whose death he tries so hard to deny, a personal exception to the universal rule of loss.

David Leveaux’s production centres on Stephen Rea, who is perfect casting as Nicholas: his sad eyes and jowls (sad jowls? Somehow, yes) radiate the essence of the character even when he is silent and still. Mike Britton’s set design, which almost completely buries the stage in daffodils, can only be explained as an over-emphasis of the contrast between the spring season and the autumn of all the play’s preoccupations, but the contrast is wildly overdone. In all conscience, too, despite what I said about this not being a Celtic twilight, there is something a little too classically Irish about sitting in the Abbey Theatre of all places and listening to lines such as “[Tuberculosis] burned through the people here like a gorse fire in February”. But this is Barry’s language, measured even when at its most majestic.
Written for the Financial Times.

Copyright © Ian Shuttleworth; all rights reserved.

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