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September 18 1890,
Madison Square Theatre, New York City: an elderly actor feels the chill and the oppression
of the constant rain. After dismissing his acting class and speaking briefly with his
young leading lady of former days, he feels the hand of death on his shoulder. He is Dion
Boucicault (Declan Condon), Irish-born trail-blazer of mid-nineteenth century theatre. The
hand of death is embodied by the ebullient ghost of Johnny Patterson (Owen Roe), recently
deceased song and dance man whose cheerful paddywhackery and clowning Boucicault looked
upon with disdain. Now, on the brink of consignment to the limbo of a dark
theatre where he is doomed to languish in eternal obscurity, Boucicault makes a final plea
for immortality by telling the story of his life as he sees it.
Stewart Parkers fanciful reflexive biography has lost none of its
power to ask pointed questions of theatrical practice. It explores the fragile space
between idealism and reality where ordinary mortals endeavor to contribute to humanity,
and uses the stage both as its object and its means. One of Parkers most powerful
conceits is the use of the theme of obscurity, here envisioned as a particular kind of
hell for writers and actors. Though not dissimilar in broad terms to Peter Shaffers Amadeus, even its "celebrity"
character is not necessarily all that well known. This makes its task of representation
even more intriguing, and its outcome more ambiguous.
This production of Heavenly Bodies runs in tandem with the
Abbeys lavish presentation of The
Shaughraun . In the subterranean space of the Peacock, director Lynne
Parker provides a welcome (and arguably necessary) counterpoint to the spectacle upstairs.
Heavenly Bodies goes directly to the heart of the issues raised by production of
Boucicault: what value can be ascribes to his work in the light of history, and how can a
twenty first century audience respond to sub-textual and meta-theatrical subtleties which
may even have been lost in the nineteenth?
In itself, Heavenly Bodies is a thought-provoking and
beautifully written play which also manages to employ the pleasures of spectacular excess
indulged by The Shaughraun. In contrast to the "mere" presentation of
spectacle in The Shaughraun, however, Parkers play turns that spectacle
back on itself, using incidents from Boucicaults work to illustrate incidents from
his life, all the while deconstructing (and indeed re-constructing) theatrical practice in
the context of exploring the nature and meaning of art.
Declan Condon (All
My Sons) as Boucicault radiates the authority and self-confidence of a successful
Victorian theatre impresario while also demonstrating the frailty of a man struggling with
his sense of self-worth. It is a sympathetic and subtle characterization played with
exquisite judgment through the various changes of tone, scene, and timeline. Owen Roe (Skylight) is an even greater
delight as Patterson, appearing suddenly from the scenery singing an Irish ditty and all
dressed in shamrock green wearing a greasy red fright-wig. Roe brings energy and chilling
conviction to this demonic leprechaun figure, springing from affable buffoonery to
postmodern irony to sadness and anger exactly when required. Together these two characters
proffer a powerful dialectical discourse on value and meaning, and likewise the two
performers come from different places to reach a common point of mutual reflection.
The play is the work of an ensemble though, veering as it does between
bits and pieces of plays and scattered scenes of biography crossing time and space. Niamh
registers well in the role of Boucicaults long-suffering second wife Agnes. Pauline
Hutton (On Such as We) makes both a commanding mother to Boucicault and a
believable love interest later as third wife Louise Thorndyke.
It would be easy to see this subject run through any number of figures
from Irish history and literature, even in a contemporary context. One could see here
Brendan OCarroll as Patterson and Roddy Doyle as Boucicault, and find in the
congruence of methods and apparent distance in intention an equally rich reflection of
issues in the representation of Ireland on stage. The use of Boucicault in conjunction
with the programming of The Shaughraun however takes on much greater resonance,
especially as part of the Abbey One Hundred, and it also serves an educational function
which the National Theatre has been quick to seize upon through a variety of workshops and
study groups running throughout the summer dealing with both plays. It is one of the most
rewarding pieces of programming in the Abbey One Hundred schedule to date, and therefore
doubly an experience not to be missed.
Dublin, June 28, 2004
- Harvey O'Brien