Our Lady of Sligo at the National Theatre, Cottesloe
Oh no, not another Irish play, my companion groaned. It's certainly been a full Gaelic season in London of late with a stream of plays from the likes of Martin McDonagh, Conor McPherson, Frank McGuinness and Brian Friel. So Sebastian Barry is in high company, but no worries - with this new play, he more than holds his own against his countrymen, or those from any other country, for that matter.
Set in the 1950s with plenty of flashbacks, Our Lady of Sligo is inspired by Barry's own family history, his alcholic grandmother at the heart of it. Mai (Sinead Cusack) is only 53 but prematurely ancient thanks to decades of gin and hard living. Now she's struggling with the act of dying in a Dublin hospital, regularly interrupted by visits from her equally sozzled but still handsome husband (Nigel Terry), her bitter daughter (Catherine Cusack), ghosts from the past and the nurse from the present armed with a needle full of morphine.
Overlaying and closely intertwined with the personal disappointments of Mai and her dysfunctional family are the larger disappointments of a people who feel betrayed by the thwarted promises of Irish independence. Like the republic, Mai - born with a silver spoon in her mouth, mollycoddled by her father and the first woman in Sligo to wear trousers - never fulfilled her expectations. Quite the opposite, her adult life appears to have been devoted to tearing down all that her successful father built up, thus squandering any chance of happiness.
Barry is a gifted writer. What his scenes might lack in dramatic tension, they more than make up for with language that is nothing short of poetry. Of course, normal people don't usually talk poetically. But, thanks in part to the sheer beauty of the words and the lyrical quality of the Irish accent, Barry's lines don't sound unnatural out of the characters mouth.
They are also helped by Max Stafford Clark s direction which, with the help of Julian McGowan s yellowed-round-the-edges hospital room, captures the elegiac mood of the language and the period as well. In particular, the washing scene, where Mai averts her gaze away from her wasted body while the nurse scrubs her down, is heartrending.
Such indignities are humanly rendered by Sinead Cusack who plays a brilliant Mai. This is a strong but flawed woman who is terrified of dying and who makes us terrified for her.