Conor McPherson’s _Night Alive_ at the Donmar Warehouse

I was blogging yesterday about the transfer of Conor McPherson’s The Weir to the West End – but wanted today to write briefly about The Night Alive, which I saw last week.

At the Synge Summer School last month, many of the writers spoke about the difficulty of transitioning from one phase in their career to another. Writers like Marina Carr are criticised when they keep doing the same thing (in her case, writing plays set in the midlands), yet are then criticised when they try to do things differently. One writer cited the example of Conor McPherson’s The Veil as an illustration of this inconsistency, saying that it’s not that the play was in any way bad – it’s just that it didn’t seem like a ‘typical’ McPherson play, so audiences (or perhaps the theatre itself) didn’t really know what to make of it.

I found myself thinking about this a lot while watching The Night Alive at the Donmar Warehouse last week. It seems to me that it is a play that shows McPherson trying to move away from things he’s done before, but without abandoning them altogether. I’m reluctant to call it a ‘transitional play’, since doing so might imply that I think its only value is that it’s a step from one securely positioned play to another.

But there are some interesting developments to note.

A word of warning – there aren’t exactly ‘spoilers’ below, but anyone planning on seeing the play may prefer not to read this post.

The Ghosts are Metaphorical

When the Weir was first staged in Ireland, many people loved its old-fashioned ghost stories. But they also, I think, responded to the ways in which ghosts in the play operated as a metaphor for other things: loneliness, memory, nostalgia, the movement from a rural Ireland of simple darkness to a more urbanised Ireland of complex brightness. And the reason so many people – well, so many academics – were willing to take the ghost stories seriously is because the play operates on so many different levels (or, to quote Martin McDonagh, it ‘has layers’).

Over time, people began to wonder if the ghosts in McPherson’s plays were actually metaphors – or if, instead, he was just trying to scare us, playing on our sensations rather than our intellects. Probably the strongest example of this reaction came when Fintan O’Toole reviewed Shining City at the Gate, and complained about its ending. Here’s what he wrote:

It says a lot about Shining City that, like some corny slice of Jeffrery Archeresque rubbish, it has an ending that reviewers can’t reveal. An eloquent contemplation of the sheer sadness of real lives is boiled down to one short and stupid word: “Boo!” McEhlatton’s subtle acting (a scene in which he silently wraps a teddy bear for his daughter is vastly more haunting than any ghost or ghoul)… [is] betrayed by a gesture that reeks of panic and a loss of faith in the material.

O’Toole concluded the review by suggesting that Shining City features “some of his best and most of his worst work” (I’d note, however, that if my Google Alerts are to be believed, the play is regularly produced around the US).

That’s one of O’Toole’s harshest reviews – it’s most unusual to find him using words like ‘rubbish’, ‘stupid’, and so on. But he was right, I think, to make the point that McPherson’s writing is often “haunting” even when there are no ghosts around – and that point comes through very clearly in The Night Alive.

The play is about a middle aged man called Tommy, played by Ciaran Hinds, who takes in a prostitute who was beaten up by her boyfriend. Over the 100 minutes or so of the play, there are no ghosts (in the traditional sense). Yet there is a moment featuring Brian Gleeson that is genuinely frightening and unnerving, and the play’s conclusion is  surprisingly similar to the end of Shining City, in that both end with the unexpected appearance of a woman. And at the end of The Night Alive, the audience should find themselves wondering if what they are seeing is reality, dream, or something else. So as in Shining City, the lines between the real and the supernatural are being blurred, but here to much more subtle effect.

VB Night Alive 1300x500

This confirms that for McPherson, ghosts and the ghostly are a way for him to present onstage the loneliness, guilt and shame that his characters embody so eloquently. I’m not sure if we’ll see another ‘ghost play’ for McPherson, but I do think his writing is going to continue challenging our views on life and death, the spiritual, the real, and so on.

And this leads to the second interesting feature, which is:

A new approach to philosophy (involving religion?)

The published edition of the script begins with an epigraph from one of the gospels, describing the adoration of the Magi. Or, as we’d put in Ireland, the arrival of the ‘three wise men’ to pay tribute to Christ. In the play itself, one of the characters describes a dream in which he’s visited by one of the magi, who describes a strange vision to him. So there is some interesting religious imagery at work in the play.

There’s also a series of comments about the relationship between time and perception – expressed most clearly in a discussion about how time slows down as you approach a black hole (a fact that is invoked in the play as evidence for the existence of God).

McPherson was a Philosophy student at UCD and while I believe he wrote his MA thesis on Mill, he seems to be drawing a lot on philosophies of perception, or perhaps phenomenology, in his recent work. There was quite a bit of this in The Veil, which explored how the individual’s perception of reality can shift according to various factors. Similarly there is a sense here in which time can slow down or speed up depending on where a person is or what he/she is thinking.

The references to the magi have a lot of resonances in the play – these are men who follow a star to worship a being that is both human and divine, and I think McPherson is trying to show us how men like Tommy can transcend their circumstances by idealising others, finding epiphanies in the everyday.

I’m not sure where McPherson is going with these ideas but it feels like he’s working through a series of questions about space and time.  And indeed those questions have been there since The Weir, a play that tricks us into believing that 90 minutes in the theatre is actually a night’s drinking in a pub.

Dramatically, those questions also have the impact of raising the stakes for Hinds’s character, since we understand that his idealisation of the woman in the play offers him a way to reverse or slow down time… And that in turn leads to the next point –

“Same Old Show”? – Women in McPherson

In that O’Toole review of Shining City McPherson is also criticised for his charactersiation of the only female character in that play, whose dialogue was described as ‘clunky’ and whose role was a ‘hopeless task’ for Kathy Kiera Clarke  (according to O’Toole). That review came out at about the same time as Karen Fricker published an article called “Same Old Show”, which complained about the idealisation and objectification (and hence the marginalisation) of women in plays by McPherson and O’Rowe.

Those who have criticised McPherson for his presentation of women characters won’t find much to revise their views in The Night Alive. As Fintan Walsh puts it in his review for Irish Theatre Magazine:

[McPherson’s] writing doesn’t exactly degrade her [Aimee, the play’s only female character], but it doesn’t give her anything interesting to say or do either. She never develops beyond being the stimulus for men to reflect on men, and their experience of the world. Though in a beautiful performance a compelling [Caoilfhionn] Dunne manages to suggest rich layers of light and shade in the role, it’s underwritten. While there are similarities with the part of Valerie in The Weir – another female who arrives into a male universe out of the blue – this character isn’t even given the opportunity to speak at length.

I’m not sure if I fully agree that Aimee’s part is underwritten. She certainly seems to say less than the men, but Dunne does add a lot of depth to the role by using silence and shifting from defensive to open postures and so on. But it’s true to say that she is the stimulus for men to reflect upon themselves whereas we never get any sense of what her own reflections about herself might be. But that’s simply because this is a portrait primarily of Tommy – and everyone in the play is there largely to help us understand him.

But what struck me most about the characterisation of Tommy is that he seemed exactly like a Billy Roche character. Roche and McPherson collaborated on Eclipse together, and McPherson has directed one of Roche’s plays – so it’s not much of a surprise that Tommy comes off a bit like the male lead in Roche’s The Cavalcaders or Owen in On Such as We.

As Roche does so often, McPherson is  showing what happens when a male figure idealises a woman, using her to justify and rationalise his own existence.  But I don’t think he’s saying that this is a good thing. Aimee becomes the territory that the men in the play fight over – as happens in The Weir too – and I think McPherson is providing a very accurate representation of how (some) men perceive women in presenting matters in this way. So again this is a theme that’s developing interestingly – and contrasts with The Birds, in which two women compete over one man. In short, I think there’s a lot more to be said about gender in McPherson.

 Another link with Billy Roche…

…is the play’s use of music: Conor McPherson remains the Irish playwright whose i-pod I’d most like to steal  borrow. Music has been important in his recent plays – I’m thinking here of how Neil Young features in Shining City or John Martyn at the end of The Seafarer. What’s notable though is that those songs aren’t essential to the action – you could easily end The Seafarer with something other than “Sweet Little Mystery” and although it mightn’t work as well, it won’t ruin the play.

Here though a Marvin Gaye song (“What’s Going On”) is essential to the action, and there is a dance scene in which a lot of the things that haven’t been said up to that point in the play become obvious. I was slightly critical of Elaine Murphy a few weeks ago for including a dance scene in Shush, on the basis that we’ve seen a few too many of them in Irish drama over the last 23 years (since Lughnasa and Digging for Fire). I was slightly surprised to see McPherson doing this here too for the same reason: it’s not like him to try something that’s been so well done by so many others.

Yet there is something interesting going on with his use of music here, which includes a lot of Talk Talk, and which concludes with Father John Misty’s “Funtimes in Bablyon” (with thanks to Fintan Walsh for identifying the song for me). And indeed the scene with Marvin Gaye works very well indeed.

In the past, I have sometimes been critical of  productions (especially in student or fringe settings) for using contemporary music, firstly because I think that a well known song can take us out of a play rather than intensifying our awareness of it, and secondly because I think music is sometimes used because a director or actor doesn’t know how to convey an emotion or idea by, well, directing or acting.

There are times when I think McPherson is at risk of this problem here  – if you leave the theatre thinking about Father John Misty rather than McPherson, that could be a problem.

But thinking about his work overall, I’m very excited by what he’s trying to do with the integration of music into his action. I don’t see him joining the growing group of people who are staging Irish musicals at present, but he’s showing an awareness of the dramatic power of music – and the musicality of drama – that is starting to remind me of Tom Murphy.

McPherson the Director

As ever, McPherson is at his best as director in the work he does with the actors. The performances are very impressive – especially from McElhaton, who gives a beautifully sympathetic portrayal of a man who (to paraphrase the Marvin Gaye song) doesn’t know “what’s going on” most of the time, but who is doing his best to make sense of the world around him anyway. McElhatton manages to portray an affecting blend of perplexity and good-naturedness that I found myself thinking about for a long time after the performance finished. Everyone else was great too, but that’s the one that stuck in my mind.

I was also interested in the development of what we could almost call the McPherson ensemble. Hinds has been in The Seafarer, The Birds and Eclipse; Jim Norton has been in Port Authority, The Weir, The Seafarer and Eclipse and The Veil; Dunne has been in The Veil; McElhatton has been in Shining City and The Seafarer. This isn’t quite in the same territory as Druid’s use of ensemble, but I’m enjoying seeing these actors work through these roles over a long period – 15 years in the case of Norton.

As for the staging – the Donmar space is very intimate, and this production was played almost fully in the round (with seats in front of and to the left and right of the stage) – so we had a sense of almost being in Tommy’s bedsit during the action. And a lot of the entrances and exits happened when the actors walked between the rows of seats. I enjoyed the sense of deep immersion that resulted from the staging, but wondered how the play would work on a standard pros arch stage. I suspect that what we’d lose in intimacy we might gain in tension: we never really feel that Tommy’s space has been invaded or transformed and while it’s not necessary that we do, I’d be curious to see what the impact of a more self-contained set might be

Where Next?

As I write above, The Night Alive feels like McPherson is heading in some very interesting new directions. But I would want to emphasise that in itself it’s also a very good play, and it’s been given a great production with a first-rate Irish cast by the Donmar. I’d hoped we might see it at the Gate in this year’s Dublin Theatre Festival (as has happened a lot in the past) but for the moment we’ll have to wait for news of an Irish production (just as we are still waiting for an Irish production of The Veil). It would be good to see one.

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7 thoughts on “Conor McPherson’s _Night Alive_ at the Donmar Warehouse

  1. Really enjoyed this article. You discuss the thematic threads, ghosts, isolation, guilt, shame, women, existence….Do you think the ‘sense of ‘being alive’ makes CM’s work connect with audiences? Does ‘existence’ precede essence? With echoes of ‘Babylon’ playing in the background, is the emphasis here, on the personal, subjective understanding of one’s purpose in life? ‘What’s Going On?

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    • Thanks for the response! I’m not sure what exactly audiences connect to, but I think you are right that it has something to do with the feeling of being alive: we may not identify directly with his characters in terms of gender or social class or nationality, but we can understand their loneliness, their sense of hope, and so on.

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  2. Thanks for the pingback, Patrick. This past summer I read virtually everything online that was written about the play. And I thought your comments were the most perceptive and interesting! I’m looking forward to seeing the production at the Atlantic in NYC this Christmas–the perfect time of year for it.

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