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Marina Carrs Ariel
is a play which is clearly grappling with several major issues. In attempting to negotiate
a space between an Irish classical tradition and an ancient Greek one, and in
trying to incorporate the not incompatible concerns of contemporary Irish politics and
society with those of postmodern theatrical forms, the play tells a story that is at once
familiar and poetically abstract. It is based on Euripides Iphigenia at Aulis, drawing its tale of a father who sacrifices
his daughter to the Gods for their favor in war through the masterplan of an ambitious
politician in contemporary Ireland.
The setting is the cavernous home of Fermoy Fitzgerald (Mark Lambert),
an uncompromising businessman in the Midlands who has already been defeated once in his
bid for election to the Dáil but is determined to win on his second. As the play opens
his family celebrates the sixteenth birthday of his daughter Ariel (Elske Rahill), a
celebration which quickly disintegrates into petty bickering and the now all-too familiar
rhythms of familial dysfunction.
The house (and home) is not represented in realistic terms however.
Frank Conways impressive set design makes full use of the Abbey space. Unadorned
high brick walls bathed in deathly purple, green and blue hues from Rupert Murrays
lights threaten to dwarf the human occupants of his symbolically-charged space. A metal
staircase provides a stage left exit which serves as a gate to heaven or hell as
characters move in and out of the arena of conflict. Only a large dinner table and a small
drinks table decorate the stage.
The family at the center of this world may wear modern dress and live
in a physical reality framed by contemporary objects including automobiles, stereo units
and television, but they too are far from realistic. Playing out the ancient dramatic
dynamics of Euripides original, these are Kings and Princesses embroiled in primal
myths. "The Earth is over," screams Fermoy to his monk-brother, Boniface (Barry
McGovern). He speaks of an (Irish) society built on kindness which has utterly failed to
advance the cause of civilization. His act of sacrifice is an homage to the old Gods of
vengeance and purgation which will supposedly grant him the power to change the world.
Mother-son and father-daughter relationships are exaggerated to breaking point and the
dialogue frequently takes the form of what amounts to monologues on weighty subjects,
making it extremely difficult for Carr to keep her audience rooted to her interrelated
concerns for the everyday lives of contemporary Irish men and women.
The play attempts to explore the anxieties of a modern Ireland with
recourse to premodern theatrical forms, stopping along the way to touch on the themes of
family, religion, and politics which have traditionally occupied Irish dramatists. This
has been attempted before, even as recently as Sebastian Barrys Hinterland. Barry used
Shakespeare as a reference point and failed to find the required level of high drama
in the life of former Taoiseach Charles Haughey. Carr is not necessarily any more
successful. Her evident care with language and at least some successful attempts to blend
the narrative spaces of naturalistic drama with monumental villainy of the Greek tragedy
do make it interesting.
Unfortunately, by the time the play reaches its multiple climaxes
complete with ghostly apparitions, wailing from the wings, and on-stage bloodletting, some
of the audience had given over to inappropriate laughter, suggesting that true balance
between elements has not been achieved.
Carr has earned a reputation as one of Irelands leading
dramatists in the past few years through plays such as The
Mai and The
Bog of Cats, and this production has been long-expected and much-anticipated. Ariel
has the merits of being a serious and thoughtful piece of theatrical experimentation
brought to the stage with the full force of a National Theatre production. The set and
lighting are extremely dramatic, the cast work hard with the mixture of styles, and though
many scenes (especially those between Ingrid Craigie as the Clytemnestra-like Frances and
Eileen Walsh as her neglected daughter Elaine) are played on the verge of hysteria,
director Conall Morrison maintains enough control to keep it together. It is a seriously
flawed piece however, on the micro level as well on the grander balancing scales between
theme and form. The first act is arguably overextended and repetitious, the character of
Sarah (Joan OHara) seems curiously redundant, and in spite of the demands of
classical revenge tragedy, the play could have ended a bit more precipitously. Ariel
will most likely not be dismissed out of hand in future readings of Carrs work, but
whether this is sufficient reason for audiences to seek it out while it is fresh to the
stage is another question entirely.
Dublin, October 5,