“People around here just want to get on with their lives”, offers Steven, played by Andrew Connolly early in Paul Mercier’s new play The Passing, presented in reparatory on the Abbey theatre stage with his other new work The East Pier. These two new ‘memory plays’ reflect on our contemporary Ireland, the unease and anxiety prevalent in its people and also ponders our connectedness to each other, or lack thereof.
Put simply, these are works for our time. However, they are not strictly of our time. The Passing and The East Pier share themes and ideas that are a continuation and extension of the themes Mercier has explored from the mid-1980s with his play Wasters, where he examined the disinterested youth of a generation of young Irish that were experiencing mass emigration. Here, Mercier presents a suburban middle-class, those who were cloistered in commuter-belt housing estates but today find themselves lost and very much alone socially, politically and economically.
To say these works are ‘recession plays’ or to label them as a direct comment on banking crises would do them a severe injustice. The dreaded words of recession, banks or bonds are never mentioned. That is not what Mercier is getting at here. He says himself “The Passing and The East Pier may be set in contemporary Dublin, amid the wreckage of a bust economy and a visionless future, but “events like the banking crisis, or whatever, happen every day. We’re either flush with [money] or we’re not. These events have been happening since I first began writing in the 1980s. The times then were challenging too. . . Yes. Ordinary life continues regardless of the economic circumstances.” (Mercier in conversation with Sara Keating, IT) Mercier is exploring the fallout of these crises and where they have been felt hardest and that is in the homes of Irish families.
The Passing is set in one such family house that has ceased to be a home.
The Passing. Image courtesy of Abbey Theatre
Catherine enters the home of her childhood and in the process sets off the alarm, she is like an intruder in her own home. We learn that this house has been vacant for some time and is about to be placed on the market. A series of meeting with her siblings ensue, each by chance, none arranged and none of the meetings are that of siblings on good terms. Anthony Lambe’s set is a through-section of the house, from ground floor to roof chimney and allows the audience a vantage point into the private lives of families, usually kept within the walls of their home. Liam, played by Peter Hanley, is the son who stayed at home and who watched his parents grow old and eventually die. He is the executor, a powerful position to hold in a society where the holder of property has previously been the winner.
This is also a key point which Mercier teases at: a house loses any sense of being a home when it is treated solely as ‘a property’. Negative equity should mean less to those who bought a home to live in, be at home in and not to sell or hold simply as a commodity.
Catherine is brilliantly played by Catherine Walsh, one of the best performances you will see this year. The ‘passing’ implied in the play’s title is played on many levels: the death of father and previous head of this household, the breakdown of the family as members move away and the ‘passing’ of the house itself into the hands of strangers, which Catherine frantically and desperately tries to prevent.
Mercier really hits some excellent notes in this play. In one of the final scenes, where Catherine talks with the neighbour Steven, they discuss how ‘year after year homes give birth to extensions’, they battle with hedges, trees, fences, boxing each other in and moving neighbours further away from each other, retreating back into their ‘improved’ houses.
We never quite learn exactly why this house has such a powerful connection to Catherine given that she ‘abandoned’ it some long years back. This, aligned with the fact that we never fully know enough about the original reasons for Catherine leaving her home or for the lack of communication between her and her siblings do leave gaps in the story. It is still an intriguing piece and forces a revaluation of the current state of Irish community, family and social standings and sets about a point of reconciliation for a new Irish society.
The East Pier is the second new play by Mercier staged at the Abbey. The audience are brought to the lobby of a pier-side hotel in Dublin’s south coast. The decor of Anthony Lamb’s hotel is aged but clean, worn and now tacky and out-dated. It perfectly accentuates the passing of time from when the hotel was a hub of life and social meetings instead of present day when not even staff are present. These sea-side hotels were once booked-solid for summer getaways but this of course was before the norm of exotic foreign holidays.
Kevin, a plainly suited business-man enters, slightly nervous and waiting for someone. Jean, soon follows. She is also suited in the garb of the successful business woman. It quickly becomes evident these two have a connection and a story that goes far beyond a chance business meeting.
Idle chit-chat is exchanged, job titles, services, husbands, wives, children, the usual ‘elevator talk’ to pass a moment.
Don Wycherly. Image courtesy of Abbey Theatre
Soon, Jean and Kevin are talking about past encounters that one or either remembers while the other can’t recollect. Mercier masterfully controls this outpouring of experience and memory. His direction keeps the dialogue flowing as one delves into their memories of school, youth, summers, debs, embraces, walks and ideas of elopement. While the other might not always remember the exact details, the place or people present, the key is Kevin or Jean have never forgotten each other. Blanks in memories give way to floods of emotions and remembered embraces. Were these deliberately forgotten however? The fractured lives of this couple and their changed directions mean things seldom follow the path they envisage.
Don Wycherly has been one of the consistently brilliant actors anywhere in Ireland over the last number of years and this is to be no exception. He carries his devotion to his children, to his business and his clients with an innate vulnerability. Andrea Irvine also excels as she portrays Jean who is visibly hurt by Kevin in a former life. There is genuine connection between the two, albeit in the face of years spent apart and spent wondering.
Paul Mercier has done something extremely interesting here. By working with memory and recollection he has ironically created two pieces that deal with the present. He presents Ireland as it stands today, broken, lacking guidance, stung and struggling in the fallout from its memories of happier times.
See www.abbeytheatre.ie for further details.