The Blackwater Lightship – Dublin Theatre Festival – Review
by Gearóid O’Byrne
Venue: Gaiety Theatre
Until Oct 2nd
Based on Colm Tóibín’s Booker-nominated novel of the same name and adapted by David Horan for Verdant Productions, this is a classic Irish family drama set in the 1990s. Three women gather in a house in rural Wexford. A grandmother, Dora (Ruth McCabe), her middle-aged daughter Lily (Karen Ardiff) and her granddaughter Helen (Rachel O’Byrne), herself the mother of two young sons. They gather because Helen’s brother, Declan (David Rawle), is seriously ill with Aids and wishes to spend some time in his grandmother’s house. He arrives with two friends to assist him, Larry (Donncha O’Dea) and Paul (Will O’Connell).
Ireland in that decade is still a society where much is left unspoken. The impossibility of dealing with Declan’s illness without openly acknowledging his sexuality proves a catalyst for many other family secrets to be revealed over the course of his visit. That they all love Declan is beyond doubt, however, denial and reproach remain the order of the day until the protective walls begin to crumble.
Grandmother Dora is a tough and independent woman of her era and adopting a “love the sinner, hate the sin” attitude readily takes to Declan’s two friends as individuals. She struggles with the use of appropriate language to describe her guests. Larry is an outgoing larger-than-life architect who immediately sets about advising Dora on changes to her old house. His character brings welcome moments of humour into the play. Paul is a more serious character, a diplomat by trade, living with his husband in Brussels, a world away from the setting of the play. Two unseen cats, Charlie and Garrett, also inject humour from time to time into the narrative.
Lily struggles to deal with the reality of her son’s life, both his homosexuality and the fact that he has contracted Aids, and seems to be seeking someone to blame for it. We learn that Lily and her daughter Helen have been estranged for many years. Over the course of the play, the reasons for this estrangement are laid bare and explored. There is tension between Lily and Declan’s two friends as we see the women representing Declan’s family of birth but Larry and Paul represent his family of choice and all struggle to do what they think is right for Declan in his time of need. Helen too complains about not having known the reality of her bother’s life but is challenged as to how much effort she really made to fill the gaps in her knowledge.
The tension in the house is exacerbated by occasional visits from a nosy neighbour Essie (Billie Traynor) who is as desperate to find out what is going on as the family are to hide Declan’s visit and illness from her.
The rural kitchen setting is sparse but the staircase rising to the first floor adds a sweep of drama and the occasional shaft of light from the lighthouse reminds us of the edge of the world location. Deftly executed by all the cast, the play unpacks a lot of tension as the simmering subtext is slowly revealed. The lack of emotional literacy, stigma and guilt are all explored, however, moments of humour punctuate the tension. Despite the age of the original text, this fine production still has much to say to a modern Irish audience.
Cast and Creative Team
Adapted and Directed by David Horan
Set and Costume Design: Maree Kearns
Lighting Design: Kevin Smith
Music and Sound Design: Tom Lane
Ruth McCabe as Dora, Karen Ardiff as Lily, Rachel O’Byrne as Helen, David Rawle as Declan, Donncha O’Dea as Larry, Will O’Connell as Paul, Billie Traynor as Essie