You want to be inside on a Christmas Eve like this. In New York’s Irish Repertory Theatre’s production of Conor McPherson’s 2006 play, The Seafarer, the wind is howling so convincingly around the shuttered windows of Charlie Corcoran’s cluttered set, you may clasp your coat tightly to you.
In this production, directed—with seasonal exuberance and also quiet foreboding when required—by Ciarán O’Reilly, we are in a home in Baldoyle, County Dublin, and it’s a mess.
The walls are dirty, the floor is covered in rubbish and beer cans. There are magazines, newspapers, the clutter of domesticity is engulfing the lives of brothers Sharky (Andy Murray) and Richard (the brilliant Colin McPhillamy), and more than fraying fraternal bonds.
Richard is blind, and McPhillamy, in occasional staccato blasts and always without thought, asks and expects Sharky to do everything. Sharky is his brother’s willing slave. Quite why he has become so willingly subservient becomes painfully clear as his sad past unfurls; and that pain Murray sketches in his increasingly stressed and rageful face.
There is some comedy in the house, the morning after a drink-sodden party, with the presence of their friend Ivan Curry (Michael Mellamphy). “Hapless” appears at first to have been invented for the proud-of-gut Ivan: he drinks a lot, is scared of his wife, and he is a good friend. When Nicky Giblin (Tim Ruddy) and Mr. Lockhart (Matthew Broderick) blow in from the cold, will they bring even more misery for the already embattled Sharky?
Sharky and Nicky are love rivals, and the suave and quiet Mr. Lockhart looks, appositely as it turns out, like an Edwardian undertaker.
Broderick, so used to being the good guy, here plays the villain with a delicate coldness, sketching out a dark back-story of crime, punishment, and —for Sharky—what seems like a non-existent, non-negotiable chance of redemption; and after that, an alternative vision of hell—which, by the by, feels very close thanks to Brian Dason’s glowering red lighting.
McPherson expertly balances the comic and dramatic, in showing both the misadventures of a group of boozed-up men, and then the terrible predicament Mr. Lockhart brings for Sharky.
In this quiet room, it is not just money in a perilous card game at stake, but life and death, and the battle for a man’s soul. Broderick’s Irish accent feels a little gentler, and more tender on the tongue, than the other men’s. And at moments his quiet, slightly muffled speech ill lends itself to his necessary explanations of who he is and what is going on.
But you don’t doubt for a moment the damage his character could do—the only, slightly implausible puzzle is why no-one in the room recognizes something is amiss, especially as Mr. Lockhart’s intrusiveness becomes more blatant, and it affects more than Sharky.
The size of the Irish Rep means you very much feel as if you are there, with the wind howling and the tense drama rising—with natural and engaging performances from each actor. Sharky is so put upon, you may want to leap up on stage and help the poor man tidy up some beer cans yourself. Do go, but you may not enjoy this craic.
Lynn Nottage has won the Pulitzer Prize For Drama twice; once for Ruined (2009) and then for Sweat (2016). Both were passionate, indelibly political plays. Mlima’s Tale is just as passionate, but the drama is less in speech than in movement.
The play follows the death and desecration of a wild and iconic African elephant called Mlima, whose plundered tusks—for all the play’s 80 minutes —we asked to imagine in the muscular, graceful shape of actor Sahr Ngaujah.
His performance is a ghostly ballet as the other actors—Kevin Mambo, Jojo Gonzalez, Ito Aghayere, and Justin Hicks—play a variety of characters, directly and indirectly caught up in Mlima’s fate, from the hunter who kills him to the very rich woman who furnishes her home with Mlima’s tusks. In the relentless, high-class, grubby supermarket she illustrates, Nottage was inspired by Arthur Schnitzler’s La Ronde, and Jo Bonney’s taut direction brings to life both the grimly real, and lyrical and spiritual.
We meet corrupt local officials, who turn a blind eye to the illegal trade in ivory happening right in front of them. We meet a trafficker who is forced to traffic. We hear an academic who illustrates the trade in graphic terms, speaking of likely elephant extinction, and the apparent impossibility to do anything about it.
But it is Ngaujah’s presence—both tragic and damning—as Mlima himself that is the most commanding on stage. He suffers horribly in death, the stage drowned in red, drapes himself around people, stands atop a plinth, and leaves a smear of white paint on every human who has something to do with the passage and trade of his tusks. Consider it a guilty branding, a mark of Mlima rather than Cain.