Kevin Barry's second collection of short stories, Dark Lies the Island, lies permanently spread-leafed around my house, and I treat the occasion of a new Barry story as a major event. I'll even buy a paper copy - or at least print one off - because his sentences are so finely tuned that they deserve the status of objects. I'm a fanboy, in other words, high expectations, and this may make me a poor reviewer for a debut play.
Perhaps unsurprisingly, the shadow of Enda Walsh and Martin McDonagh hangs heavily over Autumn Royal. You'll recognise the contours: two grown-up siblings, May and Timmy, scratch out a wretched cloistered existence as full-time carers for their degenerating father, an unseen presence above the kitchen set. Their domestic space is demarcated by a frozen tsunami of washing machines, an expressionistic nod to endless afternoons spent washing the soiled bedsheets. Young souls in aging bodies, emotionally volatile, paralysed by filial duty and, in Tim's case at least, ‘a bit spectrum-ey’, they relive pivotal moments from their past while dreaming of a life beyond the four walls of their home in Cork. May is the smarter, bossier, more melancholic sibling, plagued by her ability to ‘remember fucking everything’; Timmy is the gombeen dreamer and hopeless optimist, rehearsing a fantasy future in Australia despite never having strayed beyond his beloved Cork, recording video profiles for a dating website in the teeth of May's cutting reminder that he hasn't gotten the shift in eight years. They bicker and monologue, their sole entertainment the locals that pass by outside the kitchen window. We eventually learn that their feckless mother - who makes a late and strangely redundant third act cameo - abandoned the family when May and Timmy were adolescents, leaving them to act as fulltime carers for their crumbling patriarch.
May rages against the injustice of it all, but Barry's play suggests that native incapacity, something hidebound and timorous deep in their Corkonian soul, is the real reason for their paralysis. Certainly the father, represented by a muffled VO and an illuminated washing machine, doesn't have the weight of real presence on the stage. At a few points I wondered if the tyrannical invalid was an invention of May and Timmy's, a convenient excuse for their foreshortened horizons. The thin plot revolves around their plan to ship him off to a nursing home - the Autumn Royal - from which he quickly escapes. Having reinstated himself upstairs, they despairingly wonder, ‘Do you ever think there's no end in sight?’, like Vladimir and Estragon wondering if Godot will ever come. The difference is that Godot will never come, but May and Timmy's father will at some point expire. Sure you'll be grand, says I.
Barry is inventive and witty, blessed with near perfect pitch. Landscape comes alive in his rendering, and he can evoke the entire sad history of a character in a few lines of reported speech. His ear for dialogue is on top form here, raising Cork slang to the level of an official dialect, though an expositional and editorial strain occasionally weighs down May's frequent monologues. More problematic is his distrust of plot. In his prose he dwells in accidents and contingencies, men and women who have fled a bad lot in a bad place and suddenly find themselves deep in the wilderness of Irish psychosis. His protagonists don't tend to know how they ended up in their story, nor are they sure what to do while they're in it, and they surely don't learn anything or change by the end. May and Timmy know all too well the root cause of their tribulations - himself upstairs in the bed - but the problem of getting rid of him isn't the real engine of the drama, and neither is the essentially harmonious relationship of the siblings.
Reservations noted, Barry is never less than a charming spinner of shaggy-dog tales. The performers, Siobhan McSweeney and Shane Casey, invest the siblings with tremendous colour and energy, and the design team have collaborated on a vivid re-imagining of the kitchen sink milieu for them to inhabit.
Simon for DRAFF
Autumn Royal, written by Kevin Barry and directed by Caitriona McLaughlin, runs at Project Arts Centre until February 11th 2017.
Image: Miki Barlok
Posted: February 10th 2017