Our Lady of Sligo - Review by Simon Jenner

Some plays aren’t often revived for a reason. Sebastian Barry’s Our Lady of Sligo was acclaimed on its National Theatre/Out of Joint premiere in April 1998, and again on Broadway where Sinead Cusack reprised the central role as late as 2011.

It’s a supremely poetic if maddeningly tricksy play to bring off. There’s references to Mai’s eyebrows pencilled in like a sketch, or the way lipstick cuts into a mouth like stone. Think Brian Friel, particularly his 1991 masterpiece Dancing at Lughnasa – which NVT triumphantly mounted in February 2010. Our Lady’s also an acutely autobiographical piece, as in much Barry. Here the central character though narrational isn’t the omniscient one in Friel. But the a-chronological dance of memories moves in Barry with the ghostly yearning of the earlier play, if far less sequentially. In Barry too, there’s less interaction, more individual scenes and arias. Who but NVT would mount this?

Mark Wilson’s production owns a fluidity maximised in the Studio space, set in the round. He makes some excellent decisions with the minimal props managed by Trisha Bayliss, the nearest thing to a set. Wilson establishes diagonals: at one corner, a chair’s sheeted and pillowed. It’s where Lyn Snowdon’s hospitalised dying Mai nests. At the end of that diagonal there’s the chair some characters inhabit, albeit briefly. Directly opposite the nurse’s desk with a chair and a few notes suggests the hospital chair radiates to present and past. You wonder why it’s not a bed. The nurse makes a few notes and you wish there was a little more of this action. In the second act there’s some welcome interaction by Snowden with the audience. Again, even more would be welcome.

Characters interact in memory and fact, sometimes both together. Strat Mastoris’ lighting works an enviable slant to the past, and Adam Hewitt’s sound is neatly evocative if a touch overwhelming, in the way sound design often is – even at the National or Royal Court. The music’s well chosen though just once in the jazz you feel Snowdon’s competing to be heard. Maisie Wilkins manages some suggestive costumery, particularly Mai’s dress, perfect for 1953 when this play’s set. Mai too is fifty-three. The original was Barry’s maternal grandmother, stunning brilliant student at Galway University with her life before her.

It’s Snowdon’s play, and she’s the tour-de-force in it, a prodigious feat of never being off-stage and virtually never being out of a scene. If she is, she’s meant to be asleep, and Snowdon’s repose seems to breed monsters. As indeed they certainly do, if more benign than the live ones.

Snowdon’s energy is infectious, skirling with laughter or raucous to the winds, elemental in passions and apologizing to the nurse for ‘shitting on the floor’ as she wrestles with how to die painlessly from liver cancer brought on by alcoholism. There’s a heart-warming vehemence and rage at the dying of the light, poem written a year earlier by a poet dying in the year this play is set, 1953.

The only thing Snowdon hasn’t settled into – and she probably will by the end of the run – is shade. There needs to be a little more repose, a quietness. Some of the writing lends itself to it. But make no mistake, Snowdon has here shown herself capable of owning an entire stage and we should be seeing more of her.

Snowdon interacts most tenderly with the excellent Nursing Sister played by Helen O’Brien who worked professionally as one and with Irish nurses, after an initial acting career. O’Brien brings an understated sympathy, a positioning and stillness that’s quietly mesmerising. There’s tenderness in her refusal to judge Mai, her laughter at Mai’s valedictory dictum ‘Fuck it!’ Sister has heard far worse.

Barry here touches in one of those Irish women who buck the trend of Catholic judgmentalism. Growing up in Dublin in the late 1950s to 1960s, this writer can attest to them: they’re rarely celebrated in the recent battle cry over abuse. They were the ones who fought it. You wish there was even more for O’Brien to do. She’s quietly sovereign in this role.

Michael Bulman’s Dada too evokes Snowden’s most heartfelt reactions. Bulman himself is a singer and it shows: his vocality’s commanding and wondrously musical, just as a commanding Irish elder’s is meant to be. Again, Barry has rather isolated his interactions to Mai alone, since he lives in her past. Nevertheless he owns a superbly burnished presence as well as tone.

Julia Monkom’s Abbey Theatre actress Joanie is another small marvel. As Mai’s slightly estranged daughter she’s able to interact with at least three characters but – Barry’s fault again – has frustratingly little to do. This is a pity. Monkom’s shift from physical theatre is telling. She’s still to the point of aching, where necessary. Her painful rows with Mai and her father Jack reveal layers of betrayal, misprision and disgust it’d be so rewarding to bring out. Monkom you feel might be able to convey this in a slightly lengthier performance, and you feel too the cracking pace is set partly to overcome perceived lacunae and flaws in the structure. Perhaps it’d be good to let them gape. But this can’t be known till another production attempts it, and this reviewer hasn’t seen another.

One curious decision pays dividends. Josephine Dimbelby’s Maria is meant to be about sixty-five when Mai’s thirty-five. Mai’s alcoholism following the death of her son, her younger child, has just become incipient. Maria connects to Mai’s past. Dimbelby’s in fact far younger, and technically this part should have gone to an older actor – they’re invisible enough. Nevertheless Dimbleby’s empathy for Mai, stillness and haunting absolution is again one of the most transfixing moments of the play. As is her continual evocation of a shared past, partly as remonstrance, partly as benediction. Barry’s again underused this character – there are only six – and particularly with Dimbleby as with Monkom and O’Brien – you feel this is a loss.

Bill Arundel’s Jack is allowed more elbow, and indeed he takes it twirling to face all the audience as Snowdon does. In Arundel’s case it’s dizzyingly so. His accent’s dangerously light but Jack was a British army major in bomb disposal and admiring of the old Protestant Ascendancy and Arundel settles into a convincing skirl of disappointment. Jack’s tragedy is that when he becomes briefly the gentleman he knows they’d respect, they’ve dissolved in death exile or indifference. Arundel has the right bustle and energy, the alcoholic who drags his wife there – enduring the contempt of Dada – with his film-star looks in youth, once a British Merchant Marine officer and clearly intelligent and well-informed. These are hooks to Mai and succeed.

But he loses Mai’s house, carefully left by Dada, and they sink. Arundel well evokes Jack’s pain and at the key moments at the end of each act enacts and reacts to his statement that Mai’s responsible for the death of their son. The worst of it though, is Mai believes him. At that point she states, she begins her premature march to death. Arundel makes one on occasion feel like a spinning top as he continually takes in everyone in the round, something that Snowdon does. You long for him to take up the under-used chair a bit more and tell the story from there. The trouble with props lite is that actors have less to anchor them, and can on occasion drag out to sea. Arundel though has the right vitality, Jack’s burl and bustle and something of his inner despair. No-one’s villainous here, it’s about loss and forgiveness.

These plot punctuations are the nearest to conventional structure and release this play comes to. It’s infinitely affecting, almost Chekhovian, and one of the reasons to see this excellent cast. The fact that sadly you’ll not see another Barry play in these parts unless you pick up one of his Booker-shortlisted novels is one good reason: it’s superbly adventurous NVT planning. The fact that there’s some magnificent acting though makes it a must-see, for the soul as well as theatre-goer.

Review by Simon Jenner - First published - fringereview.co.uk