Brian Friel’s Molly Sweeney explores the world of a woman, blind since childhood, who undergoes an operation to restore her sight. On the surface it’s a simple premise, and the style of three intersecting monologues is simpler still, but the content raises challenges, questions and issues which reach far further.
Molly (Dorothy Duffy) is in her late thirties: confident, independent, optimistic. She appreciates beauty without sight, even occasionally pitying sighted people for their inability to experience the total immersion and abandonment she often enjoys. It’s a fascinating insight and turns many preconceptions about living with blindness upside down.
Engaging as Molly’s character is, the piece stands and falls on the two male characters, Molly’s husband Frank and the ophthalmologist Mr Rice. Frank (Ruairi Conaghan) is a zealot, utterly impassioned by his latest cause: bees, whales, Iranian goats, and now Molly Sweeney. His obsessive championing of her case brings them to Rice (Stuart Graham), a brilliant but broken man living in his own particular type of darkness, desperate for the chance to re-establish himself in the career he has neglected. Everyone has something to gain from the restoration of Molly’s sight except, perhaps, Molly herself.
Friel’s astonishing script is a masterpiece of empathy. The three stories are told in such intricate detail that the idea that these are characters and not real people soon becomes alien. The centrepiece of Signe Beckmann’s set is Molly’s tree where she can swing, climb and hide as her story is told. The sight of her taking shelter in the branches, out of reach of those who seek to change and, supposedly, improve her, is very moving, and demonstrates one of the key themes of the piece: that there is a marked difference between seeing and understanding, and that the casual assumption that a blind person has nothing to lose by having an experimental operation is very far from the truth.
This is a still, calm and intensely thought-provoking piece. Director Abigail Graham has allowed the words their own space to breathe, and the script is hypnotically engaging, carrying the audience along as the story unfolds. The questions raised are universal, about our relationships, motivations, values and judgements, and remain present long after the play has ended.
- Mel West