Theatre review by Conor Cruise O Brien

  • 2 October 1977
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'I for one could not help wishing the philistine wish that the players could be allowed to forget about rehearsals, and about arguing with God, and get on with the play.' Abbey Theatre: Living Quarters by Brian Friel. Directed by Joe Dowling.

Review by Conor Cruise O'Brien

THE THEME of Living Quarters is a classical one, the tragic home-coming of the conquering hero. Commandant Frank Butler (Ray McAnally) returns fron United Nations service in the Middle East to his 'living quarters' in Donegal. A civic welcome is prepared to celebrate a heroic exploit of his. His young wife Anna (Dearbhla Molloy) awaits him; also his four children by his first marriage. The action builds up to the young wife's disclosure, before the assembled family, that she has been having 'an affair' with the son, Ben (Stephen Brennan), to the Commandant's suicide and to the disspersal of the family. (1 am not here spoiling things by premature announceement; the audience is' given to know near the beginning of the play that this is how things will turn out.)

The play proceeds by carefully conntrived fits and starts. The three daughters chat brightly in reminiscences abounding in avoidance rituals. They are interrupted by, or interrupt themselves or one another in order to address a personage called 'Sir' (Clive Geraghty): director, dramatist, God. With the help of Sir the darker side of the family life is brought to the surface: the shadow of the dead wife, dominant and demanding in her long illness; the humiliation of Ben and of the eldest daughter (Helen) in the cause of ambition and convention: the mental and emotional cramping of the second daughter Miriam (Maire Hastings) and the youngest, Tina (Bernadette Shortt). The general moral failure of the family, and possibly of the society to which it belongs, is embodied in Uncle Tom (Michael 0 hAonghusa) a jovial, clownish, alcoholic Army Chaplain.

Further depths of delinquency are hinted at in the brief, furtive and eniggmatic appearances of Miriam's husband Charlie (a tour de force here by Niall O'Brien). No-one who is not a member of the family, or married into it, appears at all, except for the God-figure Sir.

Living Quarters is always interesting, often exciting - especially in the later part of the first act and the earlier part of the second - and has a number of moving moments. It is extremely well played, with fine precision in timing and admirable rapport between the players. Ray McAnally plays the Commandant with subtle understanding, bringing out the pathos and even humility beneath the military stiffnes and swagger. Fedelma Cullen combines charm with desperation in a haunting way. Michael o hAongusa brings off three of the most memorable moments of the play: a fuddled groping for appropriate words about Christ: a muffled apology for moral cowardice; and the final ghastly moment, on the verge of the suicide, when the Commandant in his anguish calls on the priest for help and guidance and the priest, in a drunken stupor, can only croak 'Correct'. Yet it is a little unfair to single out names; it is the work of the cast as a whole that deserves most praise. The strong effect of the sermon scene, for example, derives not only from Micheal 0 hAonghusa's wide-eyed stumbling but from the silent plenitude with which those who share the stage with him are able to convey their sense of the irrelevance of the priest, his words and what he is talking about. It is a cast, that is to say, that does its level best,

under Joe Dowling's skilled direction, for this play, and makes it well worth going to see.

That said, I must confess my own disappointment: an impressed dissappointment, but a disappointment. Those Brechtian and post-Brechtian devices. that were supposed to be liberrating from the fetters of traditional dramaturgy are beginning to look susspiciously like fetters themselves. Pu tting it another way, Sir is a pain in the neck. I mean no disrespect to Clive Geraghty who brings considerable authority to the part; the trouble is, the more authorrity he .brings, the worse the pain. We know that the concept of 'rehearsal', and of characters resisting the destiny of their lines is supposed to convey someething about the nature of liberty but the audience doesn't get the message and doesn't care. I found it intolerable that 'Sir', representing at this point, I think, both the dramatist and God should interrvene to scold the wretched priest for not setting a better example. If God is really like that, his poor priest had good reason to get drunk.

The final part of the play provides a good illustration of where the strength and weakness lie. The Commandant's reaction to the shock of Anna's revellation is to start explaining the clinical details of his first wife's last illness. There is a strange truth and poetry about this moment which holds the audience. But then, as if in obedience to the school of thought which holds it wrong to allow disbelief to be suspended, Mr. Friel propels poor Mr. McAnally before a manifesto which falls considerably short of the Book of Job. The effect of this is to strip the Commandant of the dignity in humiliation which he had been in danger of achieving. After that, the expected shot comes like a backfire.

Such dramatic dissillusions, deflations, disengagements, are deliberate, they are well adapted to the gifts of certain dramatists: wily, witty, warty swashhbuckling fellows, with more taste for dialectics and for embodying metaaphysical concepts than for the antics of human beings. These are not the qualities that are most strikingly evident in Mr. Friel. His strength, it seems to me, is in his searching and sensitive observation of human beings, and in the acting out of human predicaments, not in the manipulation of concepts. The humanly reductive apparatus which comes in handy for the writer of metaphysical or ideological inclinations is for Mr. Friel a kind of hairshirt. He may perhaps have donned that shirt out of a distrust of the tilt of his talents, to save him from the sin of schmalz. I think a wiser and kinder confessor than 'Sir' might now advise him to lay aside that discipline.


The dates and times of the following productions are correct at time of going to press. However, listing theatre dates in advance is a notoriously chancy business, particularly in the commercial theatre where plays can bloom and die overnight. In our experience even advertisements in the evening papers can be inaccurate and we'd strongly advise readers to telephone individual theatres to check dates and times of performances.


Theatre Festival October 3 to 15. Office: 47 Nassau Street, Dublin 2 Tel 778439.

In spite of the massive cut back in its grant the Festival is surviving, just. Most of the plays featured are revivals, or were scheduled to open this month anyway. Still, the Festival Club will be open every night from 11.30 p.m. at the Tailors' Guild Hall, Christchurch, Dublin 8. To join you have to be able to show that you have attended 5 festival productions. Single night membership £1, one week £3, two weeks £5. Membership available from Festival Office. Below, a selection of the most interesting productions on offer.

Abbey Lower Abbey Street, Dublin 1.

Tel 744505. Seats £1 to £2.50. 8.00 p.rn. Sept 12 to Oct 5: Living Quarters by Brian 'Friel (reviewed), Oct 6 to 8: Cock-a-Doodle Dandy by Sean O'Casev. Wild and bitter satire on clerical hypocrisy, greed and sexual represssion in an Irish village. Production a bit heavyyhanded but flashes of fantasy and brilliance. Oct 10 to 15: Travesties by Tom Stoppard. Dazzling display of verbal pyrotechnics based on the dramatist's felicitous discovery that Joyce, Lenin and Tristan Tzara, one of the founders of Dadaism were all to be found living in Zurich in 1917. John Kavanagh heads a cast which includes Desmond Cave as Joyce and Ray Hardie as Lenin. Tomas MacAnna directs.

Gaiety Sth King Street, Dublin 2 Tel 771717. Seats £1 to £3. 8.00 p.m. Sats 3 and 8.00. October 4: Rings for a Spanish Lady by Antonio Gala translated by Peter Luke. Hugely popular play which 'has been running in Spain since 1973, about the pol itical and personal problems which follow the death of a political strong man. Set in 12th Century. Starring June Tobin and T.P. McKenna. Oct 11 to 22 As You Like It with the Irish Theatre Commpany directed by Joe Dowling.

Olympia 72 Dame Street, Dublin 2Tel778962 Seats £1 to £2.50. 8.00 p.m.

October 3: Liberty Suit by Peter Sheridan. Godfrey Quigley' stars in reformatory for juvenile delinquents. A Project Theatre prooduction directed by Jim Sheridan.

Peacock Lower Abbey Street, Dublin 1

Tel 744505 Seats £1 Students 75p. 8.15 p.m. October 6 to 8: Catchpenny Twist by Stewart Parker. New play about three young hopefuls trying to make it in the world of pop in Belfast. Tougher and less immediately pleasing than Spokesong but worth seeing for Parker's more serious commitment to theatre. Oct 13:

Talbot's Box by Thomas Kilroy. New play about Matt Talbot and the cults which surrround him. Interesting conjunction of playywright and subject. John Molloy plays Matt T. and Eileen Colgan is a female priest.

John Player Theatre South Circular Road Dublin 8 Tel 757901'-8.00 p.m. '

Oct 3: 7:84 Company in The Trembling Giant by John McGrath. Welcome return of deservedly popular left-wing theatre group, adept at mixing political message with lively funny theatre. Author John McGrath was a scriptwriter with Z Cars until he threw it all up to take theatre to the masses.

Project Arts Centre 39 Essex Street, Dubl in Tel 781572 Seats £1 to £1.50. 8.15 p.m.

Oct 4: The Mother by Bertholt Brecht, set in pre-revolutionary Russia. Songs by Chris Meaghan, Irish premiere. Lunch time (1.05) Seats 60p. Oct 5 to 8: Purgatory Oct 10 to 15:

On Baile's Strand, .Se Sheridan's productions of W.B. Yeats' short plays wowed them at the Edinburgh Festival where committed theatreegoers are reverent about the Celtic twilight. Stylishly done, pretty intense fare for lunchhtime. Late night, 11.15 p.m. Seats £1. Conversations about an Absent Lover. Agnes Bernelle in one-woman show' about Goethe. CORK

Everyman Playhouse Father Matthew Street Tel 26287. Seats 60p. to £1.00.

Oct 17: The, Comedians; Trevor Griffith's powerful play about a school for would-be comics, and what happens to the one who tries to break out of the usual cliche ridden routines. Opera House Emmet Place Tel 20022. Seats 80p. to £1.55. 8.00 p.m.

Oct 17 to 22: Elvis, Noel Pearson production commissioned within hours of 'the king's' death. Cahir O'Doherty is Elvis in his prime, Donal McCann as the ageing pop idol looking back on it all and Niall Toibin as Colonel Parker.


Arts 41 Botan ic Avenue Tel 24936 Seats £1 to £1.25. 8.00 p.m.

Oct 13 A Shilling for the Evil Day, Joseph Tomelty's classic play about an Ulster fishing community.


The Druid Theatre Dangan, Co. Galway Tel 65221 Seats £1.00. 8.30 p.m.

Oct 8: The Promise by Alexei Arbuzov. Sentimental tale of love and renunciation in post-revolutionary Russia, very popular with audiences in the USSR.