Those familiar with the work of Conor McPherson may, at first glance, think they’ve wandered into the wrong play. Rather than a down-at-heel modern pub, office or flat, The Veil, the Irish playwright’s first period drama and his first new play in five years, is set in a stately home in 1822 Ireland.
But beneath the crumblingly grand, historic surface, there are supernatural happenings, hidden family secrets and haunted characters that hark back to the Irish playwright’s earlier works including The Seafarer (revolving around a card game with Mephistopheles), Shining City (in which a widower seeks a therapist’s help to exorcise his late wife) and, most famously, the multi award-winning The Weir (in which pub regulars share ghost yarns and Guinness).
Before we even get to The Veil’s pivotal séance scene, McPherson himself conjures the ghost of Chekhov. The Lambroke family’s Mount Prospect House has fallen on hard times since the death years earlier of its master, who hung himself from a hook above the now tarnished mantel piece mirror that’s the central feature of Rae Smith’s open-roofed drawing room set. The meagre crops have failed again, tenants can’t make their payments, revolutionaries are at the door and an avaricious colonel is angling to pick off the property for a song. Lady Madeleine’s last hope to save the family estate and settle her debts is to marry her 17-year-old daughter Hannah off to a rich English Marquis, who offers financial security and the added bonus of a glamorous life in London.
Defrocked clergyman cousin Berkeley (played by McPherson regular Jim Norton) arrives to escort Hannah to her intended in England, but he and his Laudanum-sipping companion Audelle, a philosopher and plagiarist dogged by scandal, are more concerned with accessing the girl’s “acute consciousness” for “trapped” souls. Whose voice does she hear when she plays the piano? Who is the young girl she searches for in the house? Is it a version of her past self, a toddler when she discovered her father’s corpse? Or perhaps her own future child who will bring about her demise?
When the visitors’ psychic attempts apparently provoke a nearby building collapse, and many deaths, the sense that the estate’s inhabitants are themselves trapped, despised by the outside world, intensifies, and whether they will be able to escape their circumstances, and their pasts, becomes the central question.
There are fine performances from Fenella Woolgar as the duty-bound Lady Madeleine, Emily Taaffe as the haunted, self-harming Hannah, Peter McDonald as the lovestruck, gambling-addicted estate manager Fingal and Adrian Schiller as the doomed Audelle. And Jim Norton ably provides both the plot impetus and some delicious comic moments, particularly with his grandiose reading of a letter from his benefactor.
However, some major stumbling over lines in a critical scene on press night suggests that McPherson, who also directs, may have been continuing to rewrite through previews. This is his third London premiere in which he’s done double duty, after Shining City at the Royal Court in 2004 and The Seafarer at the NT in 2006, and you can’t help but feel the work may be better served by two heads rather than one.
The play takes its title from Brid Brennan’s housekeeper’s comment that “it would take a strong draught to blow back the veil of confusion”, but McPherson’s play fails to do just that. At the end, Berkeley and Ursula Jones’ addled grandmother stare enigmatically into the mirror, but like their indistinguishable reflections in the glass, too much remains unclear.