As The Steward Of Christendom garners acclaim at the Royal Court in London, Sebastian Barry's previous play opens in the Dublin Theatre Festival a year later than intended. It is another fictional reinvention of one of Barry's forebears – a late-Victorian music-hall artiste – but where The Steward exhibited a fierce concentration, The Only True History Of Lizzie Finn does not sprawl so much as lounge.
The play focuses on a world largely ignored by 20th-century Irish drama, that of the rural "Big House". Lizzie, performing in Weston-super-Mare, is wooed in unorthodox, even distracted fashion by a fellow Kerryman returned from the Boer War and haunted by his experiences in Africa. Won over by his "wildness", it is only on her arrival in Ireland that she realises he is of the landlord class, one of those whose rent demands led to her own family's rootlessness.
Barry is more subtle than to render this conflict brutally explicit, delineating instead the gentry's cool reception of Robert Gibson's "dancing woman" and Lizzie's own often frustrated desire to communicate as an equal with the servants. Casual references are made by others to "my man" or "the people", as if the grand folk are above such common humanity, but the new Mrs Gibson is keenly conscious that she is of those people. Patrick Mason's staging recreates both the world of "the halls" and of the "Big Houses" at great and stylised length, adding perhaps half-an-hour to the running time as Barry obligingly includes a sequence from Colonel Cody's Wild West Show and two separate showcases for performer Birdy Sweeney's avian impressions.
The production moves at the leisurely pace of an historical novel; life in a Big House was hardly frenetic, as any Chekhov play will attest, but these events do not attain Chekhovian intensity. In a fine social touch, the Gibsons are ostracised not for Lizzie's low origins but because Robert, having lost three brothers in the Transvaal, "crossed to Kruger". However, we are expected to take pleasure in the story rather than the drama, in moments such as Fionnuala Murphy's scene-stealing appearances as the simpleminded maid Theresa. The poetry of The Steward is also much less in evidence. Occasional glittering lines surface with a self-conscious air, and Joan O'Hara's nicely reserved performance as Lady Gibson culminates in a coldly shimmering account of being turned away from the chapel, but this time Barry cares more about his large canvas than linguistic detail.
Lorcan Cranitch finds a skilful path through the several thickets of Robert's character: his class, the life-changing legacy of his African years, the flashes of fire and underlying nobility of spirit. He carries more of the play's weight than he should have to since Alison Deegan's Lizzie is somewhat lightweight; whether by accident or design, she wears a permanent gloss of "performance". Even the closing scene, mourning Lady Gibson and family retainer Barty, comes over as disquietingly blithe. Its effect is to cheapen the play's ending, implying that social divisions, the underestimated hardships of the gentry in an age of rent strikes and other difficulties can all be overcome by an honest love. It is Barry's misfortune that Lizzie Finn should be produced only now that we know he can attain much greater heights and depths.
Written for the Financial Times.
Copyright © Ian Shuttleworth; all rights reserved.
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