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Review Round-up: National Raises McPherson's Veil

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The Veil, a new play by acclaimed Irish writer Conor McPherson, opened to critics at the NT Lyttelton last night (4 October 2011, previews from ). 

In 19th-century rural Ireland, the defrocked Reverend Berkeley arrives at the crumbling Mount Prospect House to accompany 17-year-old Hannah to England. She is to be married off to a Marquis in order to resolve the debts of her mother’s estate.

However, compelled by the strange voices that haunt his beautiful young charge and a fascination with the psychic current that pervades the house, Berkeley proposes a seance, the consequences of which are catastrophic.

The production stars Jim Norton, Emily Taaffe, Ursula Jones and Adrian Schiller and runs until 11 December 2011.

Terri Paddock

" … 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 … 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 … 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 … are more concerned with accessing the girl’s 'acute consciousness' for 'trapped' souls … 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 ... 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 … 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."

Charles Spencer
Daily Telegraph

"Imagine a Chekhov play full of ghosts and things that go bump in the night and you will get some idea of Conor McPherson’s strange and fitfully entertaining drama … Young Hannah (a touching Emily Taaffe) is troubled by voices she hears, and has begun to self-harm. When a defrocked Anglican minister and a laudanum addicted philosopher arrive to escort Hannah to England and her wedding, no end of creepy manifestations of troubled spirits begin to erupt. I must admit that I spent a good deal of the play thinking that this was little more than hokum, and somewhat verbose hokum at that. The dramatic poetry and unsettling sense of the numinous that run through so much of McPherson’s work sometimes seem strained here, and the attempt at 19th century dialogue isn’t always persuasive … But The Veil is worth sticking with. The first ghostly manifestation is a real dramatic coup, and a séance scene, conducted by the defrocked priest, is genuinely terrifying ... There was a moment in the second half when the performance seemed to be heading for the rocks when that fine actor Jim Norton twice had to call for prompts, confirming my suspicion that McPherson’s sometimes windy dialogue isn’t quite as memorable as it might be. Norton rallied splendidly however as the dodgy clergyman and there are fine performance too from Fenella Woolgar as the steely mistress of the house, Adrian Schiller as the philosopher, and Ursula Jones as a touching grandmother in the grips of dementia."

Henry Hitchings
Evening Standard

" … A distinct whiff of Chekhov hangs in the air. Rae Smith's grandly gloomy design sets the mood. The atmosphere of foreboding is augmented by the interfering efforts of defrocked minister Berkeley (Jim Norton), who is maddeningly intent on exploring other people's psyches, and the drunken eloquence of his friend, opium-taking philosopher Charles Audelle. These two are meant to look after Hannah as she heads to England. Yet their duties as chaperones seem to matter less than their enthusiasm for the romantic ideas of contemporary thinkers. Berkeley is obsessed with 'trapped' souls. He announces that he has prayed for their release 'in Nottingham and Gateshead' - a statement that gets one of the evening's bigger laughs. Hannah is an ideal project for him. She is described as having a 'unique attunement' to the spirit world and tells of being summoned by a disembodied voice. Its significance is bewilderingly unclear, and she cuts herself with an apple knife in order to experience a pain she can actually understand ... It's all rather slow-moving and heavy. The ghostliness is never fully convincing. And McPherson's writing, though at times razor-sharp, is often oddly prosaic."

Michael Billington

"Conor McPherson has in the past shown a genius for investing the melancholy of modern Irish life with a sinister undertow. Now he has thrown caution to the winds by setting his new play in the period of the Protestant ascendancy and making the supernatural manifest. The result is a strange and baffling mixture of historical metaphor and intellectual melodrama suggesting a rewrite of The Cherry Orchard … I suspect, at bottom, McPherson is writing a state-of-the-nation play ... But, while that's a bold idea, McPherson throws too many ingredients into his Irish stew ... But at least The Veil is never dull and McPherson's production has a manic energy. Jim Norton as Berkeley may have had the odd first-night stumble but endows the dodgy cleric with the forced heartiness of one of nature's permanent guests. Adrian Schiller as his creepy philosophical companion, Fenella Woolgar as the hard-up host, and Emily Taaffe as her unhappy medium of a daughter all lend vigorous support. And when Brid Brennan's housekeeper, in accepting an Irish whisky, cries 'pour me a fitting measure of our Lord's tears', you are reminded that McPherson has a wickedly satirical ear. But, after this excursion into the past, I look forward to his returning to what he does best: writing about the fear-racked solitude of the historic present."

Libby Purves
The Times

" … We are in an Anglo-Irish mansion in the 1820s: a drawing-room where the master hanged himself in front of the chimney-glass and was found by his small daughter Hannah (Emily Taaffe). She is now of age to be married off by her briskly desperate mother, Lady Madeleine (Fenella Woolgar), to an English lord ... So far, so Chekhov. But there is a touch of Ibsen too, what with the shadow of suicide and Hannah hearing voices … Then to complete the literary ancestry we channel Wilkie Collins, as an unfrocked clergyman, Berkeley, and his friend, Audelle, arrive to escort Hannah over the water. Both are obsessed with the psychic-scientific-romantic-psychological bouillon of ideas thrown up by Coleridge, Swedenborg and Hegel, and dive in with more enthusiasm than caution ... Berkeley, played with hilarious grandiloquence by Jim Norton in clerical gaiters, thinks the dead father is 'trapped' in the house, and enrols Hannah because 'certain people have a strangely energetic effect on the fabric of Time itself'... The combination of narcotics, spiritualism, dementia, sin and suicide is intensified - and here it does feel modern - by a constant awareness that outside, villagers and their children are starving to death. The family are afraid of them: 'The thieving red-haired look they give you ... they’re in league with the Devil.' … McPherson is cheerfully fearless about bathos, veering from the spooky to the prosaic. Lady Madeleine prescribes hot milk for psychic shock, and Norton’s Berkeley gets the best laugh of the evening when, summoning unquiet spirits, he says reassuringly: 'No need for alarm, I have prayed for souls trapped in Nottingham. And Gateshead.'"

- by Katherine Graham


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