I was present at a first night pre-view performance - which fact should be taken into account vis-à-vis any adverse comments in the review.
Tales of Ballycumber is a tragedy. The author, Sebastian Barry, has tackled the extremely difficult and harrowing subject of the large number of suicides recently happening among young Irish people, especially young men. For those who have not been touched in real life by being close to such tragedies, the play might be a bitter pill to swallow. For those who have had to swallow a more bitter truth already, in a barn or bedroom maybe, at a moment of awful, sudden and unchangeable realisation, this work and its performance on the Abbey stage will provide at least a little hint of empathy and hopefully a little solace.
The play has been carefully constructed with a mixture of story-telling, bright and dark imagery, rural dialect, farm lore, ghosts, parenting and themes of young love hindered by shades of ever so delicate inter-religious tensions. It begins with the brilliant song, Heartbreak Hotel, made famous by Elvis Presley which sets the scene to follow. Farmer Nicholas Farquhar (Stephen Rea) is 45-ish, his young friend Evans Stafford (Aaron Monaghan) is 17, both are Protestant. The neighbourly Evans has just helped Nicholas to root out a crow's nest from his chimney when the two sit down to tea and chat. Evans has news about Elvis's ancestors coming from the nearby Hacketstown, Nicholas recounts tales of the famous Kennedys. In between, Evans is anxious to talk about the girl with the greeny blue eyes, a Catholic with whom he has fallen in love, whose brother has lately hanged himself. Nicholas counters with recalling the tragedy of a young local girl, "one of the most beautiful wee girls that was ever seen around Ballycumber" who has died of cancer.
However, it is Nicholas's own advice to Evans, summed up in "You couldn't be trusting a girl like that to look after you" , that sows the seeds of the play's own immediate tragedy. Evans leaves a note saying that "Nicholas Farquhar knows" why, when the young lad shoots himself in the stomach. The focus turns on Nicholas. The gentle Andrew Stafford, Evans's father, wants to know, while Evans still struggles for life, what had Nicholas said to his son that caused him to do this. Nicholas's own sister, Tania, also wants to know. She becomes the bearer of bad news that Evans has died. She further wants to know "was there anything amiss" between Nicholas and Evans, recalling a shopkeeper whose wife had to lock up their three sons "so he couldn't get at them". For Nicholas this is too much.
He has ghosts in his head. One is the wee girl who died of cancer. Another is his dead mother to whom he cries in his grief. The wee girl (who sang the Heartbreak Hotel song) comforts him from time to time. Evans becomes another ghost, visiting him with a strange tale of how he was looking for the girl with the greenie blue eyes, found her (now her name was Casey) but just when they were enjoying each other's company, a band of men attacked him, pinned him down and shot him in the stomach.
The cast is star-studded. The writing has a strong hint of Synge. The portrayals, especially of Nicholas and Evans, were memorable. So, I have been asking myself: Why was it not a very satisfying theatre experience for me?
Part of the answer is probably that it was a first night pre-view, some characters were not fully prepared, some sentences were lost, some voices very weak. Another reason may be the denseness of the text, the difficulty of listening to long tales without any action. The cyclorama failed to convey the atmosphere it was intended to convey. The direction (on that first night) may have lacked subtlety. There was little movement on stage. People spoke mostly from a standing or sitting position. The stage itself looked unbelievably small and odd. Most of all I think it was the daffodils (which unnecessarily smothered the stage) that made me uncomfortable.
On the positive side, what a brilliant idea to have the full text of the play published in the official programme. This affords you an opportunity to compare what you heard with what you see and to try to tackle the unanswered questions of the play.