Friday 7 October 2011

Ghosts are replaced with gunfire

The Veil, National Theatre (Lyttelton), London

Conor McPherson’s play seethes with unsettling forces. Rae Smith’s set breathes bleak foreboding; the walls of a crumbling Irish country house loom flimsily, candles flicker fearfully and the mantelpiece, which once played host to a suicide, seems scarred with death. Noone is in their right mind and everyone is as fond of strong spirits as they are fearful of ghostly visitors. Angry servants stalk the corridors and, outside the house, the threat of revolt rumbles. 

The Veil is, at least for the first half, a thrilling fusion of The Cherry Orchard and The Woman in White.  A distinctly Chekovian plot seeps through the cracks of this old, 19th century house. The proprietor, Lady Lambroke, has resolved to marry off her daughter, Hannah, and thus save the family from financial ruin. Only, in McPherson’s play, the ghosts and regrets that haunt Chekov’s characters are alive and kicking – or, at least, screaming spookily through the walls.

Young Hannah, who discovered her father’s hanging corpse when she was just a little girl, is the principal portal for these eerie encounters. She has been hearing voices and her mother, anxious these screams will pursue her daughter to her London marital home, summons Reverend Berkeley and his sidekick, Charles Audelle, to accompany Hannah on her journey. Only, the Reverend and his opium addled philosopher have other ideas: they want to see what Hannah sees and hear what she hears. They want to play God.

So, as everyone else dulls their fears with alcohol, Reverend Berkeley and Audelle hone in on Hannah. The Reverend (Jim Norton) – now defrocked but still using god as his calling card – insists on a few harmless prayers. These prayers are in fact seances and, in a brilliantly edgy encounter, Hannah lets her demons in.

Although Norton suffers some first night stumbles, his Reverend Berkeley is a charismatic and corrosive presence. He is comforting but deeply manipulative; gleeful as Santa Claus and yet near Satanic in his desire to access the other world. Adrian Schiller’s Audelle seems protective of Hannah and respectful of her gifts – and yet, despite his sympathies, he plies the girl with opium. And, whilst Emily Taafe’s Hannah has a youthful gloss – she shines with fear during the séance – she is steely too.

The first half is hugely enjoyable; a grizzly ghost story told around a blazing fire. But things get too complicated in the second half and the play strains under the pressure of too many ideas, too many characters and too much mystery. Once peripheral characters take on a confusing, primary importance. The political backdrop, which initially only bristled in the background, muscles in on the action. Ghosts are replaced with gunfire. It is as if McPherson loses faith in his simple but sumptuous first half and tries, too late on, to complicate matters. In attempting to thicken his play, McPherson draws a veil over the creeping threat that lurked so brilliantly before. 

Till 11 December 2011


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