Thursday, September 25, 2014

Pentecost: a play with a bigoted ghost, strains of trombone & signs that our past still haunts us

Set around the time of the Ulster Workers Council strike in 1974, Stewart Parker’s last play Pentecost feels like it was written to get a lot of things off his mind and shared in perpetuity. It’s a multi-layered affair that continues to speak into a fractured Northern Ireland more than 25 years after it was first staged, though perhaps with less power as audiences refresh and direct experience of the conflict fades.

Cast of Pentecost L to R: Will Irvine, Paul Mallon, Judith Roddy and Roisin Gallagher in Stewart Parker’s play Pentecost at the Lyric Theatre until 18 Oct. To book tel: 028 90381081 or Pic Credit: Steffan HillAt its simplest, the play concerns an estranged couple. Lenny (played by Paul Mallon) has inherited the last terrace standing in a contested slum area of Belfast, complete with its dead tenant’s furniture and possessions. His wife Marian (Judith Roddy) is in the antique business – “trading, buying and selling, that’s what I’m good at” – and he offers her first refusal on the contents. But she surprises him by announcing that she’s sold the business and instead wants to snap up the whole house to live in.

It’s also a play about leaving, whether dying, divorce, or walking away from an abusive relationship. Ruth (Roisin Gallagher) comes to stay in the house after being hit once too often by her policeman husband. And it’s a play that painfully references childlessness, through cot death, miscarriage, infertility or abandoning an out-of-wedlock baby.

Above all of that is the toll of conflict on society, the stresses it puts people and their relationships under, the impact on mental health and the excuses people make for behaviour that in any other environment would be called out as unacceptable.

Oh, and a touch of religion. The only outwardly Catholic character Marian has more than a nod towards Mary about her nature. And then there’s the play’s title, the final scene, and Peter ...

Due to a burglary, Lenny moves into the house he’s selling to his ex-partner. Ruth joins them. And when bohemian Peter (Will Irvine) arrives home on a visit from England, he completes the foursome. But they are not alone.

Judith Roddy as Marian and Carol Moore as the ghost of Lily Matthews Lenny in a scene from Pentecost by Stewart Parker at the Lyric Theatre until 18 Oct. To book tel: 028 90381081 or Pic Credit: Steffan HillAs Marian battles with her own demons she encounters the ghost of uber-Protestant Lily (Carol Moore), the former tenant. Picking through the possessions, photos and diaries she pieces together Lily’s own less-than-straightforward past.

Peter is the outsider, and mirrors Stewart Parker’s own experience of moving away from his Sydenham upbringing to England and the US. Perhaps Peter’s “exileophilia” (“the opposite of homesickness”) and the constant critiques of Northern Ireland’s dysfunction can be seen as the ghost of Parker?

The five scenes all take place in the beautifully recreated period front room and tiny kitchen of the terrace house – a house “eloquent with the history of this city”. There’s a dresser full of non-matching crockery and gas lights above the fire. Through the magic of Alyson Cummins’ set design, the grimy flowery wallpapered walls become translucent when the action moves into rooms behind them.

Actress Roisin Gallagher who plays Ruth in Pentecost at the Lyric Theatre until 18 Oct. To book tel: 028 90381081 or Pic Credit: Steffan HillThe gloomy set also acknowledges the power and fuel cuts during the UWC strike. Intentional lighting casts stark silhouettes on the sparse walls. Bell-bottom flares, patterned dresses and a particularly garish yellow blouse adorn the characters trapped in the two-up, two-down.

Despite the inclusion of a ghost, and the Troubles vibe, it’s not an exciting play that really has you on the edge of your seat wondering how the situations will resolve. Parker’s dialogue is deliberate and Jimmy Fay’s direction honours it. The second half begins with Harold Wilson’s “spongers” speech playing on the radio. Amongst the depression and the strife – and the sniping at politicians and sectarianism – Parker gets laughs with some funny lines …
Nobody takes photographs at a funeral - except Special Branch!

... and a left field Dennis Potter-esque conversation about nuns frolicking in the surf on a deserted beach.

The play seemed to resonate most with the older half of the audience who could be heard reminiscing about the UWC strike during the interval and as they left the Lyric Theatre. Younger audience members struggle to bring that context with them into the theatre and end up experiencing a very different play. (Though Connal Parr’s essay and timeline in the programme are very useful.)

Cast-wise, I was unconvinced that there ever could have been a spark between the distant Marian and layabout Lenny. Whereas the shameless flirting between Ruth and Peter was much more believable and they turned out to be the most watchable characters in the five-hander. However, a scene after the interval between Marian and the ghost of Lily is perhaps the most touching of the production.

Stewart Parker didn’t restrain himself from commenting on and critiquing the exploits of community activists during the strike. Nearly two years after the flag protests broke out, his scolding analysis feels surprisingly contemporary.
“Spare me your vision of the Third Reich of Ballyhackamore”
The play gets its name from the final scene which takes place on Pentecost Sunday and includes the disciple Peter’s “your young men shall see visions, and your old men shall dream dreams” address. Parker gets to preach his final sermon. With zealots on each side, he calls on the community to embrace each other’s humanity and seek the Christ inside us all. The ghost in the play departs, and perhaps the four remaining characters finally listen to each other.

Actor Paul Mallon as Lenny in a scene from Pentecost at the Lyric Theatre until 18 Oct. To book tel: 028 90381081 or Pic Credit: Steffan HillPentecost was my first – albeit belated – experience of a Stewart Parker play. While it had a great set and filled in a lot of historical background that I missed from my cot, I do wish that this production had tried harder to make me care about the fate of the characters.

Pentecost is in the Lyric Theatre until Saturday 18 October. It’ll be the first (and last) play you watch that features a bigoted ghost and a trombone! Update - though a couple of weeks later the Lyric served up a play with a ghost and a guitar!

PS: I hope the Lyric remembered to invite the National Trust to last night’s opening!

You can hear actors Adrian Dunbar and Barbara Adair discussing Stewart Parker’s play Pentecost at a June conference in QUB marking the 40th anniversary of the Ulster Workers Strike.

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