To an English theatregoer, not steeped in the politics and personalities of
the Republic of Ireland, Sebastian Barry's new play Hinterland can
be viewed simply as an everyday story of a former political leader now
facing off the demons of his past. Here is a portrait of a man who was a bad
father, an unfaithful husband and a corrupt politician; so far, so ordinary.
What politician isn't flawed in one or more of these ways?
But in fact, the character is quite clearly based on the somewhat notorious
figure of the former Irish President, Charles J Haughey. As a result, the
man who plays him, Patrick Malahide, has remarked that when the play was seen
recently at Dublin's Abbey Theatre, "We became a piece of news rather than a
piece of theatre." And the Irish have long regarded the theatre as a forum
that foments political dissent. When JM Synge's The Playboy of the
Western World was premiered at the Abbey, it was famously greeted with
riots. Malahide told a friend they were getting a very strong reaction
there, and received a reply, "Until you hear small arms fire in the stalls,
There's no such threat as Hinterland now crosses the water to the safe house of the
National's Cottesloe Theatre. In fact, a far more urgent disruption is posed
by the sound of snoring in the stalls. And Haughey, who has threatened to
sue for defamation, might have a case if only for being reduced to such a
dull, self-regarding character. In Malahide's monotonous, monochrome
performance, there's little of the fire and fury that must have
distinguished the man in his political career.
Irish critics, however, have
pointed out that the actor bears an uncanny vocal resemblance to Haughey - Fintan
O' Toole in the Irish Times comments, "Malahide almost entirely inhabits
Haughey's voice. He captures quite astonishingly the way Haughey's speech
mirrors the contradictions of his language, the ugly guttural tones riding
on top of those rolling, stately, mesmeric cadences."
So much for the man and the method of the performance; what about the play?
In this defiantly domestic portrait of the man, holed up in the handsome
study of his Dublin mansion where he's attended by a loyal manservant, we
find the politico protagonist troubled by a suicidally depressive adult son, a needy wife, and
the arrival of a former mistress. But, while Hinterland is sometimes a quietly touching
portrait of the devastation that one single-mindedly selfish man can cause
others who come into his orbit, it only sparks into intermittent dramatic
The best scene occurs towards the play's end when the wife (the superb
Dearbhla Molloy) faces off her rival, Connie (Anna Healy). This duel has the
resonance of real life, rather than the remembered life that preoccupies the
playwright and his leading character elsewhere. Here, Max Stafford-Clark's
production, for his own company Out of Joint who have co-produced it with
the National and the Abbey, finally finds some humanity and power behind the