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The Sydney Morning Herald: The Seafarer

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See article in its original context here by Sonia Harford for The Sydney Morning Herald.

Soul searching: The drink flows in The Seafarer, but the prize for the winning hand is greater than any normal card game when a new face turns up at the table.

A mysterious stranger is the wildcard in many a play or film, usually amping up our sense of unease.

Menacing or benign, the new player at the poker table arrives to upset the status quo, portending any number of cathartic events.

In theatre, Irish writers have long staked a claim on such atmospheric drama. Poetic stories seem to ferment in their peat bogs.

Conor McPherson is one of a modern breed of acclaimed Irish playwrights, along with The Leenane Trilogy writer Martin McDonagh. Mythic and supernatural themes characterise McPherson’s early works such as The Seafarer, soon to be staged by Melbourne’s Hoy Polloy ensemble.

‘‘The Seafarer is the most out-and-out religious play I’ve written,’’ McPherson acknowledges, on the phone from Ireland. ‘‘It sits very comfortably in the Christian myth. But it is is also very much a pagan play, harking back to very primal fundamental forces. The play takes place on Christmas Eve but also the winter solstice, the shortest day in the year – in this part of the world anyway. It’s about darkness and light, inner darkness and being delivered from that and trying to transcend that.’’

The Seafarer positions its late-night visitors around a poker game in a Dublin house. They arrive to join two brothers, one an alcoholic, one blind. Lingering, drinking, the men in this marooned group reveal their natures, the working-class idiom belying grander forces at stake. Cue an expensively dressed stranger.

‘‘The devil comes to visit and to gamble for somebody’s soul,” McPherson says. “What’s enjoyable about The Seafarer is the play seems very ordinary, it’s very realistic yet the stakes are cosmic and eternal, and the audience is inside that knowledge which makes the stakes really high.’’

The playwright’s characters and their boozy dialogue have been enthusiastically received by British and American critics. His other plays too, including The Weir, have often had exceptional reviews; his latest, The Night Alive, won this year’s New York Drama Critics’ Circle award for best play.

Their success suggests that while Irish literature has its own fertile roots and branches, there’s a mystical streak that’s common to many – the struggle of lost souls in a heedless universe.

‘‘There seems to be similar stories in other cultures, the Faustian pact – gambling for your eternal soul,’’ agrees McPherson. ‘‘You don’t have to believe in it to enjoy the story, that’s probably why it travels well.’’

Comic scenes also arise from family and its inevitable sparring. ‘‘People can say the most deeply insulting things that you could never say to an acquaintance or stranger, but tomorrow they’re still going to be your brother and you just have to get on with it. So it gives you tremendous freedom to allow their inner frustrations to have full rein in the room and that can be very funny.

‘‘The men who have gathered in this house on Christmas Eve have nowhere else to be. They’re all kind of homeless in that sense, so they’re a makeshift family.’’

The play’s Melbourne director, Wayne Pearn, says the cast is hard at work in rehearsals learning to play poker, ‘‘and to play poker well, as though they’ve been playing it for many years’’.

An admirer of McPherson’s work, Pearn says he’s kept abreast of all his plays since Hoy Polloy staged a successful season of Shining City in 2006.

‘‘He has a unique feel for the Irish who drink and their loneliness; he explores all that terrain, redemption, guilt … These guys drink to come alive in a way. One is the euphoric drunk – ‘you’re all my mates’; for another it’s just a flatliner, there’s no difference and for another it’s an alertness and a maliciousness.’’

It’s been said that on stage the Irish lilt gives actors a theatrical advantage, rendering every line poetic or comic. However McPherson holds a surprising view, borne out by the naturalism of The Seafarer.

‘‘I think it’s the opposite. The people in my plays always tend to be Irish because it’s the sound I know; and if anything I’m trying to put the lid on any poetry, to get rid of that, and to keep it as brutal and coarse and inarticulate as possible. But I suppose when people see it through the prism of their own culture there’s something about the otherness of that sound they find poetic and expressive.

‘‘It’s a kind of irony really. I would think I have these bumbling idiots who can barely speak to each other, but then you might have a critic that finds it really beautiful. It’s not intentional. Though dialogue on stage can have a musical force to it.’’

He’s more likely to turn to Harold Pinter or David Mamet as touchstones than his Irish forebears. ‘‘Probably Harold Pinter would have thought he was writing very naturalistic dialogue which of course became imbued with a kind of ‘Pinteresque’, mannered way of playing it, which is probably not what he would want.’’

Of Mamet he says: ‘‘His desire to cut to the chase all the time is very instructive to playwrights. He just has this forward momentum which I think a lot of people would give their right arm for. He’s probably not thinking about the poetry and yet it’s there.’’

McPherson’s plays are revived in several countries, yet initially he stays closely involved. He likes to direct the original production of a new play before it goes out into the world for others.

He has also adapted work for television and written and directed films. The Actors, which teamed Michael Caine with comedian Dylan Moran, divided critics, but his later ghost story The Eclipse seemed to fare better and find its audience.

He says he most naturally leans towards plays. ‘‘Film is a totally different way of thinking in every regard. It’s not a seamless move at all, it’s like jumping from one moving car to another.’’

It’s fair to say that as a playwright McPherson has been prolific; yet he says success in previous plays doesn’t help him write the next one. ‘‘When you get a bit older you think ‘what am I doing?’. I don’t think that self-consciousness is healthy. They say playwriting is a young person’s game and I can understand it.

‘‘The sheer exuberance and energy of young people are good for a play … You have to be quick to stay ahead of the audience. Having said that, the last play I wrote took me to new places and did very well. If a play does that you know you’re still alive.’’

The Seafarer is at fortyfivedownstairs, 45 Flinders Street, city, July 30 to August 10.


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