The eternal quest for meaning is at the heart of many a story. The whys and wherefores of human behaviour are a perennial source of inspiration, as culture at its best seeks to understand and transform the world in which we live. The Hanging Gardens, Frank McGuinness’ new play for the Abbey, goes one step further, presenting us with a world where meaning is disappearing, communication breaking down, and no amount of tender care can put the pieces back together.
Not that there is much in the way of tenderness or care to be found among the members of the Grant family. Gathered at the family home in Buncrana, County Donegal to discuss their father’s decline into dementia, we learn quickly that the three adult children have troubled relations with their parents. ‘The cough of the broken hearted or the cough of the martyr?’ asks youngest son Maurice as his sister Rachel describes their mother’s reaction to her unorthodox pregnancy. Their father Sam Grant, a renowned writer who is losing control of his mind and the language he so values, doesn’t fare much better in their appraisals. But there are layers to this play that belie a straight reading. A murky love simmers beneath the surface. ‘Father’ is the first word spoken by each of the children, underlining the significance of this planet-sized being around which their orbs circle to varied degrees of success.
At the bottom of the ladder is eldest son Charlie (Declan Conlon), whose low self-esteem and resentment at being the one left at home to care for his father manifests in a number of vitriolic, often melodramatic, attacks against his siblings. The tensions continue with middle child Rachel, played with sardonic detachment by Cathy Belton, and ‘baby of the tribe’ Maurice, a forlorn and melancholic Marty Rea. There are no easy binaries of good child-bad child, but at times the rancour overwhelms and the characters lose dimension. Ranting against their parents, the offspring have a tendency to sermonise. Elsewhere, the bitterness jars. Would Rachel really talk about her hard-won pregnancy in such sarcastic tones, even if the exchange is masquerading as banter?
Lightness breaks through in various set pieces. McGuiness uses humour to undercut the serious subject matter – a funny Ryanair anecdote is made funnier still by Sam Grant’s attempt to deconstruct it – and it also works to remind us of the nature of dementia itself. As every family with experience of the illness knows, amid the heartbreak and tears, there can be moments of unintentional hilarity. The play is at its most engaging when it focuses on the common, everyday details that cause the heartbreak, the shards of memory that bring frustration and pain both for the patient and those around him. A stillborn daughter, a punch to the stomach, beaten children and pseudocyesis – the stories mount up, the fecundity of the writer’s mind now warped and uncontrolled.
But is Sam Grant misremembering, is he caught up in past creations from books, lost in imaginations, or is there something nastier to the ramblings and cutting remarks he uses to shock his family to attention? Niall Buggy’s crotchety Sam convincingly portrays the ambiguity at the heart of dementia, the blurring of fantasy and reality and the deceptions and manipulations that are part and parcel of this. In one of the most intriguing interactions, we see Sam question Maurice about lewd photographs with the lucidity of a schoolmaster weeding out lies. Moments later he has confused himself into the story, sitting on a toilet in a kimono looking for his penis. This theme of fantasy versus reality is there from the beginning. Those legendary gardens evoked by the title might be one of the ancient wonders of the world, but their exact location, their very existence, has never been definitively verified.
Michael Pavelka’s lush garden set, its vivid green grass striking against autumnal plants and terracotta tiles, feeds nicely into the play’s twinned themes of need and neglect. Here is a garden still verdant with past attention but fraying at the edges – broken pot plants, a gate hanging from its hinges, a malfunctioning weathervane. The effort to sustain and nurture is proving difficult. McGuinness excels at setting, not only with the garden, but also the wider town of Buncrana, with its long beach and prying ‘natives’ that the family has always cold-shouldered. This isolation is now keenly felt.
The Hanging Gardens is more concerned with themes than story. Despite the leading questions that Rachel fires at Maurice at the end of Scene One – ‘Charlie is up to something, but what? I’m dying to find out. Are you?’ – there is little plot momentum or intrigue aside from the obvious ones of money and legacy and children grown to resentful adults.
McGuinness draws attention to this petty refusal to let go of the past. ‘Stop that sob story,’ says Barbara Brennan’s no-nonsense matriarch Jane. ‘What is worse than adults whining about their parents?’ And yet, it seems most of the play’s action is made up of exactly that.
Communication is breaking down and the characters are desperate for their stories to be heard while there is still time. Family members eavesdrop on conversations, characters shout about love but can’t communicate it directly, Sam Grant furiously rips up the newspaper, no longer understanding its language or present day messages. Under Patrick Mason’s direction, the play is loaded with this kind of symbolism. From planting in the garden to changes in the weather, forgotten song lyrics to a son with a PhD in semantics, the underlying themes are always close by. Given the subject matter, it comes as no surprise that resolutions are not to be found. When all the problems of past and present are spoken, the grievances aired, we are left with a vacuum, or as Sam himself puts it in his story of the father who fashioned a house from his children’s flesh: “He heard silence, eternal silence – the silence of the spheres whose music had stopped.”
The Hanging Gardens runs at the Abbey Theatre until Nov 9th.
Frank McGuinness – Writer
Patrick Mason – Director
Michael Pavelka – Set Design
Davy Cunningham – Lighting Design
Joan O’Clery – Costume Design
Denis Clohessy – Original Music and Sound Design