Porcelain – Abbey Theatre (Peacock Stage) – Review by Frank L.
16 February – 10 March 2018
In the programme notes writer Margaret Perry states that she cannot get the story of Bridget Cleary out of her head. Bridget, who came from outside Clonmel, was killed by her husband Michael in 1895 who believed that a changeling had come to reside, at the instigation of the fairies, in her body. Michael Cleary was convicted of manslaughter and sentenced to twenty years penal servitude. The case was and remains a cause celebre. Indeed “The Burning of Bridget Cleary” by Angela Bourke (2001) was “an invaluable resource in researching the lives of Bridget and Michael Cleary” according to Perry.
Porcelain is set in the present, also in rural County Tipperary, where Hat (Lola Pettticrew), a 26 years old woman tells her cousin Sarah (Caitriona Ennis) that she has ambitions to get out and go to London to pursue a career even if it is not that for which she has qualifications. Sarah is happy to stay put and accept what fate brings her. Hat leaves Ireland for a new job in London. She meets Bill (Ramshad Abedi-Amin) on a night out. They quickly fall in love and Hat unexpectedly becomes pregnant. Added to this story, which is the dominant one, are glimpses of the married life of Bridget (Toni O’Rourke) and Michael (Keith McErlean) Cleary. Dressed in modern day clothes their lives reflect the story from 1895.
Perry tells the tale of Hat and her relationship with Bill and Sarah interleaved with snippets of the story of Bridget and Michael Cleary. Perry was brave to undertake such a “confabulation”of time and persona.
The set by Cécile Trémolières was firmly set in a comfortable mode of twenty-first century bungalow bliss in rural Ireland. It contained, somewhat incongruously, a large, simple wooden bench which served several purposes during the play and the space was required to represent more than one location. It, in addition, had to serve as the site of Michael and Bridget’s tormented life which meant the viewer had to make a great number of mental adjustments as the scenes unfolded. A sixth character was Silvertongue (Helen Norton) who represented a variety of incarnations including delightfully an over-the-top hairdresser but while Norton’s performance was at all times intriguing the precise purpose of Silvertongue in relation to Hat’s saga was far from obvious. The story as described by Perry was one with many fragilities. Porcelain, by its very nature is fragile and when packaged is often labelled “handle with care”. Hat is filled with angst in relation to her baby. She is in a fragile state. The childless Bridget Cleary had her own mental turmoil. The innate properties of porcelain requiring to be handled with care are a metaphor to both mental states.
There is much fine writing and there are some very good scenes throughout this one and half hour piece. But the complexity of intertwining Bridget and Michael’s story with Hat and Bill’s reduced the impact of each rather than enhancing it.
Bill: Bamshad Abedi-Amin
Sarah: Caitríona Ennis
Michael Cleary: Keith McErlean
Silvertongue: Helen Norton
Bridget Cleary: Toni O’Rourke
Hat: Lola Petticrew
Written by: Margaret Perry
Directed by: Cathal Cleary
Set and Costume Design: Cécile Trémolières
Lighting Design: Paul Keogan
Composer and Sound Design: Denis Clohessy
Casting: Amy Rowan