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The Spinning Heart – Mill Theatre – Review

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The Spinning Heart – Mill Theatre – Review by Paddy McGovern

9th – 14th Jan 2017

Articulate Anatomy’s production of Donal Ryan’s The Spinning Heart is an example of grim, sombre subject matter leaving you somehow uplifted and excited as you leave the theatre. It transfers the essence of Ryan’s novel faithfully to the stage, trusting the strength and variety of the individual monologue format, resisting any temptation to “dramatise” or interact verbally. Characters – all of whom remain on stage throughout – appear as “presences”, emerging from the gloom as they are referred to by the speaker, receding as naturally and unobtrusively as they have materialised.

A picket fence comes apart in sections and reassembles, quickly, efficiently and always to a purpose – hemming in characters, cutting them off, corralling in a ghost estate, incarcerating in mental illness. Declan Brennan’s sound design is evocative.

We are in recession-struck Ireland of eight or nine years ago. Things fall apart; “the sky is falling down”. The village is a microcosm of the country we all remember: dodgy building developers fleeing the country leaving their employees broke, desperate and furious at their betrayal as even PRSI stamps have not been paid. Solicitors on enforced career breaks, Dell executives suddenly unemployed. Young men like Ethan Dillon’s Brian swaggering unconvincingly as they look to Australia, consoling themselves with the prospect of “the ride” that may be more freely on offer there.  Single mother Réaltín (beautifully realised by Caoimhe  Mulcahy) is locked into a crippling mortgage.  Siberian construction worker Vasya (Gordon Quigley, doubling as a deeply affecting Denis) seems scarcely more ‘uprooted’ than the local population.

Disgraced developer Pokey’s foreman, local hero Bobby Mahon, sees his marriage and his future disintegrate and realises – as did so many Irish at that time – that “the things you thought you would always have, you never really had”.  As Mahon, Killian Coyle anchors the production in a finely judged performance, mercifully devoid of the histrionics that many of his monologues and experiences might invite. In a beautifully managed moment at the end, he transmutes into his long-dead grandfather, forcing us to interpret his father’s actions and attitudes in a new light.  If Bobby is adored by the whole community, his father relishes the collapse of his son’s life. His cold, malicious smirk and his satisfaction at his son’s plight seem beyond comprehension and lack credibility – until, that is, we hear from him in death what he couldn’t articulate in life about his own father’s brutality. The ghost of McGahern’s The Barracks and Amongst Women hover in the wings.

Gerry Howard’s portrayal of the father is a masterclass in economy and stillness.  If he is a man of few words, the opposite is the case with voluble Seanie Shaper and Timmy, two very different characters played by Shane O’Regan with astonishing versatility. Toni O’Rourke’s Bridie has lost a son in a drowning accident and is so consumed by grief that she cannot even look across the lake to east Clare and is scarcely functioning. O’Rourke, doubling as Bobby’s wife, Triona, is totally convincing in both roles. A young girl acts out the confusion and frustration of her parents. As the daughter – and doubling as her own mother – Sinead Fox’s choreographed movement and vocals could well have given rise to the company’s name, “Articulate Anatomy”!

If there is less meat on the bones of the remaining characters, Madi O’Carroll’s Hillary/Mags and Matthew O’Brien’s Rory /Jim, both actors do everything that is asked of them. To say that the cast has not a weak link is not a critical cop-out; it is an unavoidable compliment to outstanding ensemble playing, beautifully marshalled and directed by Brennan.

If the show has a weakness, it is the decision to play it in two acts rather than straight through as the interval disrupts the rhythm and retards the momentum. Any pruning would be difficult as there is nothing that one would easily sacrifice but it might be a price worth paying for a more satisfying structure.

“Why can’t I find the words?” asks Bobby, as he flounders to get a grip on what is happening to him and all around him.  Donal Ryan had no such difficulty in finding the words to articulate the shock and awe experienced by Irish people in 2008 and his words are done full justice in Brennan’s production. As a footnote on words, it is interesting to see a credit for Voice Coach (Helena Walsh). The result shows not just in obvious ways like voice projection but in the actors’ distinctive accents and rhythms as they inhabit more than one character each. Such attention to the voice as a vital tool in an actor’s toolbox would be welcome in more Dublin productions.

The show continues in Mill Theatre until the 14th and transfers later this month to Smock Alley (January 23rd – 28th). Miss it and you will miss something special.

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Categories: Header, Theatre, Theatre Review

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