Theatre Review: The Dead Woman’s Son
OverviewDirector: Michael Mc Cabe
Pros:It's thoughtfully composed, convincingly acted and frequently compelling.
Cons:It may be a little too abstract and cerebral for some people's taste, its vague philosophical musings can at times prove tiresome.
An idiosyncratic and enlightening meditation on the effects of mental illness, as experienced through the eyes of a mysterious, nameless protagonist.
Few plays are likely to open in as disconcerting a manner as The Dead Woman’s Son – a freewheeling, entertaining and well-acted examination of mental illness, about a young man who, 20 years on, is still haunted by the memory of his mother’s death in a tragic car accident, which he supposedly witnessed as an eight-year-old boy.
The opening is appropriately unsettling, given the grim subject matter. The audience are invited into the theatre, which is surrounded by a number of cracked mirrors, and they’re promptly instructed to refrain from sitting anywhere. On the night I saw the play, as it began, I immediately noticed one of the characters leaning on a railing of the balcony right next to me. I promptly had to manoeuvre myself away from the action to accommodate the entrance of another character, who proceeded to confront the aforementioned performer. Such antics constitute an example of the unique surrealistic flourishes that consistently permeate The Dead Woman’s Son, in which the intimacy of Smock Alley is regularly used to full effect, amid an hour and a half of theatre that is seldom less than interesting.
The story focuses primarily on a character simply referred to as ‘Boy’ and his relationship with a confused and understandably angry young woman (who also remains nameless) that he appears to have kidnapped. The plot eschews conventionality for the most part with its enigmatic opening generally prompting more questions than answers – literally so, in fact, as the opening exchanges between the male and female characters resemble a bizarre interrogation. Thus, a relentless onslaught of ineptly answered queries adds to the air of confusion instigated by the unusual opening, as the crestfallen woman unsuccessfully urges the sinister-seeming Boy to clarify why she is ostensibly being held hostage. Indeed, Boy’s answers are so vaguely philosophical and frustratingly open-ended that the play at times is in danger of annoying not just the apparent hostage, but the audience too. A brief dialogue as to whether anything that’s happening is real, among other overly familiar musings, represents one of the rare occasions where the play flirts with cliché.
At the Q and A session following the performance, writer Rua O’Dannachú (who also plays Boy) said he had not been influenced by other playwrights while writing The Dead Woman’s Son. Yet though he may not have consciously realised it, there is a discernible Pinter-esque dread that seems especially prevalent in the first few minutes of action, with the aggressive and constant questions creating a strong level of ambiguity and sense of foreboding – factors which consequently exacerbate the discomfort among audience members, who are still likely to be processing the unexpected insistence that they stand up initially.
Such intensity is present throughout the play, though sporadic interruptions of its bleaker moments come in the form of some terrifically executed moments of dark humour and imaginatively staged dream/flashback sequences, qualities which ensure the play is anything but the joyless experience that its premise suggests. One particularly memorable instance of striking wit is evidenced during a scene in which Boy imagines introducing his mother to a new girlfriend. The mother swiftly proceeds to strangle Boy’s other half, seemingly killing her, before turning to him and enthusiastically remarking: ‘She’s lovely!’ Though the play would barely be affected if this scene wasn’t included, it remains a nice touch and a wry commentary on the passive-aggressive and overly protective nature that parents unfailingly show towards their children.
Yet for all its humour, The Dead Woman’s Son is ultimately a work of extreme seriousness. It is clear from the sophistication of its dialogue and authenticity of the performances that a painstaking level of effort went into turning the play’s concept into a reality. Moreover, its convincing portrait of the debilitating effects of mental illness is unremitting and frequently fascinating. While some audience members may find the plot a little too cerebral and abstract, and the characters difficult to warm to, it still successfully inspires a constant desire in the viewer to learn more about Boy and the array of eccentric individuals that inhabit his world. The fact that it achieves this feat, while maintaining a strong level of ambition, merits praise of the highest order.