Friday, November 04, 2022

After Melissa: melancholic jigsaw puzzle of competing memories and unspoken secrets #BIAF22

After Melissa is a tragedy told through the memories of a Donegall man, an Egyptian woman who married into high society, and a younger woman who brings pleasure to many but is searching for fulfilment.

Ruairi Conaghan is the primary storyteller. He plays Eamon Quiery, a literary academic who worked in Egypt’s Mediterranean port city of Alexandria but has returned home to Donegal to raise Melissa’s daughter. As he pieces together what really happened in those heady years spent overseas, he recalls the voices of some of the women he knew well in a city that is portrayed as colourful and exotic. Justine’s wealthy husband Nessim had grown cold and she enjoyed the company of the “freckled, milky-skinned blow-in”. But Quiery was also smitten with a dancer in a local club, besotted with the woman’s vulnerability and his desire to protect this broken bird who has been disowned by her family.

Caitriona Hinds emerges from the shadows dressed in black. Her Justine is at first confident, later less guarded, and finally at peace with the tangled web that this group of lovers have woven. Melissa is talked about more than she’s listened to. But when Sanja Nović steps onto the stage, there’s an electric presence that gives her few choice lines more impact.

Over 90 minutes, the audience are able to grab pieces of remembrance and fit them together like a jigsaw puzzle, testing the different truths against each other to find congruence and detect contradiction. The characters engage because they are full of flaws and ambiguity. The dialogue plays with accents and vernacular.

The plot may be set in an oversexed Alexandria, but it also speaks to the unspoken secrets that are knowingly overlooked in everyday society and many families. None of the love and lust in the tale was free: it all came with a great cost. A sense of melancholy hangs over the heads of the characters like a charged cloud ready to burst with a heavy shower of rain.

Despite the long series of monologues, David Grant’s direction never lets Quiery become frozen to one spot on the stage. The simple set includes a garden seat, a typewriter on a desk and a kitchen table. (And always expect to see a suitcase in Jane Coyle plays!) The limited palette of simple sound and video effects are nearly unnecessary – other than the lines for the offstage Balthazar – given the strength of the writing and Conaghan’s hold over the audience.

The one-act play is inspired by Lawrence Durrell’s tetralogy of books – The Alexandria Quartet – which retell an overlapping set of stories from different characters’ perspectives, slowly twisting what the reader believes to be the truth behind the differing memories.

Examining the consequences that result from a set of liaisons in the cultural melting pot of Alexandria sounds more like a subtitled TV series that should be broadcast on BBC Four than a play you’d expect to see produced and performed in Northern Ireland. Yet the Irishness of the central character really lifts the concept of After Melissa into an intriguing work that can speak loudly about the concepts of home and belonging. About selective curiosity and incomplete memory. About whether the adults in the room can be trusted with an invisible child’s welfare. About whether love can survive and thrive when all the tea has been spilt.

You can catch After Melissa in the Brian Friel Theatre (straight in front of you when you walk into Queen’s Film Theatre) until Saturday 5 November as part of Belfast International Arts Festival, and then in Bellaghy (Thursday 10), Armagh (Friday 11), Downpatrick (Saturday 12) and Cushendall (Sunday 13). Photo credit: Linda Hutchinson

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