By Conor McPherson
There is a strong oral tradition of storytelling in Irish folklore which has a contemporary medium in the form of the play. Loosely based upon the legend of the Irish Hellfire Club, where a mysterious stranger seeks shelter on a stormy night and a card game ensues (Walsh, cited TRB Programme, 2007), playwright, Conor McPherson exploits his heritage in his compelling new play, The Seafarer, which is currently touring following a sell out run at the National’s Cottesloe Theatre.
Adhering to Aristotle’s unities of time and place (Leitch et al, 2001, pp 86-88), The Seafarer is set on Christmas Eve in the basement living room of the Dublin house shared by Sharky (Karl Johnson) and his cantankerous brother Richard – convincingly played by veteran actor, Jim Norton, whose performance at the Cottesloe earned him the 2007 Laurence Olivier Award for Best Performance In A Supporting Role (London Theatre Guide – online). The premise of the two-act play is redemption, yet it subverts Goethe’s Faustian myth by postulating that no human is beyond salvation – not even Sharky, who sold his soul to the devil 25 years ago. In interrogating the Christian tenet of salvation it does not seek to proselytise; it merely opens the discussion and leaves its audience to make up their own mind.
The all male cast explores the relationship between five middle aged drinking pals who come together for a festive game of cards. McPherson tightly controls his own writing as Director, exploring the theme of alcohol addiction in some depth. He asserts that “Drinking is everywhere [in Ireland], it’s like nothing happens without it,” (McPherson, Guardian Online – 13/09/06). He achieves this through the characterisation of the cautiously sober Sharky and his friends who are really just one social step up from the winos they deplore. The dialogue is often fragmented, mirroring the relationships that the men have with each other and with the powerful off-stage women who inhabit the play. In imitating common speech, this fragmentation allows the actors to breathe life into their characters, rendering them completely believable. The symbiosis between Sharky and his irascible brother is particularly credible and Richard’s insistence on paying Sharky’s gambling debt is religiously symbolic – both a gesture of repentance for his hitherto loathsome behaviour and an offer of deliverance.
The two-storey set design, with its backdrop of moon and stars, alludes to heaven and hell and reflects the layers within the play. Rae Smith’s detailed design is naturalistic, yet, in realizing the emotional tensions of the script, each object has its purpose. The living room, reflecting the low social status of its inhabitants, “lacks a woman’s touch” and is “immersed in pub culture…a big mirror advertising whiskey, ashtrays, beer mats, a bar stool…” (p 3). These details ‘show not tell’. The plasters on Sharky’s nose and knuckles suggest that he has been in a fight and brings physicality to what is generally a very static play. In an example of extreme naturalism, the smoking fire establishes Sharky as a nurturer but also reminds us of hell. In the beginning, Ivan (Conleth Hill) loses his glasses – a key prop and a metaphor for the emotional short-sightedness of the characters and their blindness to the tension between Sharky and Lockhart (Ron Cook). They do not appear on stage until the end of the play, when they avert Sharky’s disaster.
Against this backdrop, emotional tension is manifested in Neil Austin’s atmospheric lighting design and Mathew Smethurst-Evans’ sound. In a particularly chilling moment, the light fades as Sharky is left alone with Lockhart. When a harsh spotlight focuses on him it reinforces the tension in the discourse and, symbolically, leaves his opponent in the dark. The moon and stars intensify our perception of Lockhart as a fallen angel. However, they are also a metaphor for hope, and when Sharky starts drinking they are extinguished, bringing a sense of emotional realism to this moment of change in the play. In a supernatural charge, the picture of The Sacred Heart that flickers on and off during the play, finally stays on once Sharky’s battle is won. Emotion is further conveyed by the sound of the storm raging outside, and Lockhart’s reaction to the carols on the radio emphasises his diabolical nature. The Irish folk song at the beginning of the play links this contemporary tale to the folklore it emulates and John Martyn’s version of ‘Sweet Little Mystery’ at the close offers a sense of hope.
I came away from The Seafarer having experienced a transient moment of pure theatre! Benedict Nightingale suggests that McPherson “…tell us more about Sharkey’s sin and its effect on the man himself?… a few more lines might clarify and maybe deepen the picture” (Nightingale, B, 2007, Did Critics Toast Conor McPherson’s The Seafarer at the National?, Theatre.com [online]). Yet, McPherson’s point is Sharky’s absolution, not his sin. This original take on a traditional tale has been brought to life by a sympathetic cast; and fulfils the remit that “contemporary drama relates to the time it was written in…asking questions about the way we live rather than answering them” (Norgate et al, 2007). It engages with our time and leaves its audience with enduring questions about the frailty of the human condition and the choices that we make.
Leitch, V et al, (2001), The Norton Anthology of Theory and Criticism, New York: Norton
McPherson, C, (2006), The Seafarer, London: Nick Hern Books Ltd
Norgate, S et al (2007), ENL 212 Contemporary Drama Course Notes and Module Handbook, Chichester: University of Chichester
Theatre Royal Brighton (2007), Programme
London Theatre Guide, 2007 Laurence Olivier Awards, London Theatre Guide, [internet]
McPherson, C, (2007), Human Beings Are Animals, Guardian Unlimited, [internet]
Nightingale, B, (2007), Did Critics Toast Conor McPherson’s The Seafarer at the National? Theatre.com, [internet]