Irish playwright Conor McPherson is best known in this country for The Weir, which premiered at the Royal Court before runs in the West End and Broadway as well as a bagful of awards, including two Oliviers. In that 1997 play, the visit of a Dubliner lady to an Irish country pub sparks off an exchange of ghostly tales.
Seven years later, McPherson returns to supernatural, and superlative, form with Shining City - which he’s also directed in this world premiere, co-produced by the Royal Court with Dublin’s Gate Theatre - although on this occasion, rather than a collection of competing spooks, there’s just one all-too-real spectre impacting proceedings. She is Mari, the recently, and painfully, deceased wife of John, who, as the play opens, arrives at the offices of newly installed counsellor Ian desperate to exorcise her from his house and life.
Apparitions aside, Shining City shares several other themes with some of McPherson’s earlier works. Though this new Dublin-set piece is haunted by a female presence, as in his plays such as Port Authority, a brilliant three-hander of interwoven monologues, it’s the entrenched insecurities of the modern male – bedevilled by loneliness and an inability to connect with others – that most concern McPherson.
Like a less clinical David Mamet, McPherson’s disjointed, and sometimes frustrating, dialogue shows the men’s struggles to communicate. Interruptions, repetitions, trailed-off sentences and unsaid words that hang in the air (and on the page of McPherson’s detailed script) are punctuated by liberal Irish ‘you knows’. Only during the two therapy sessions, when John – in an amusingly ambivalent performance by Stanley Townsend – segues into monologue does the rhythm settle and the pace quicken. His is a modern telling (replete with text messages) of an age-old story (adultery and guilt).
In between John’s confessionals, we also learn more about Ian, the seemingly composed counsellor (played with watchful nervous tension by Michael McElhatton) who, having turned his back on the church, is now plagued by his own relationship crises.
Designer Rae Smith’s church spire glimpsed through the window – against which Mark Henderson expertly lights the passage of time and seasons – provides a fitting backdrop for the conflicts of faith waged by these two characters, constantly searching for happiness and meaning, always waiting for a sign. And, in the end, both they and we the audience get one. Startling.
- Terri Paddock