In Conor McPherson’s The Seafarer, directed by Ciarán O’Reilly at the Irish Repertory Theatre, the playwright subtly stirs the conflicts within and among his characters. However, when McPherson throws a twist into the plot in the middle of Act I, he initializes an extraordinary pivot. Only then do the conflicts heighten to a slow boil and begin to seethe with the sinister expectation of doom. The tension crescendos. And in the able hands of O’Reilly and this excellent cast, we thrill to the suspense. But we fear the endgame. McPherson’s adroit writing and this very fine production make one forget that the setting remains a vital factor in understanding the play’s profound themes and its uplifting and satisfactory outcome.
The play begins with the homely interactions between blind older brother Richard, his younger caretaker brother Sharky, and drinking buddy Ivan. As Richard, Colin McPhillamy’s blustering, humorously fault-riddled, cantankerous portrayal defines the relationships. Indeed, Richard establishes the character dynamic. And he fuels the action on Christmas Eve day and evening.
For the two bachelor brothers, this is a time of drinking and partying with friends. Chief friend Ivan checks on Richard when Sharky must leave for a few days. Upon Sharky’s return, Ivan (a fine Michael Mellamphy) lured by drink and laughter, stays over into Christmas Eve day, despite a wife and children. As Sharky rouses his brother from sleeping on the floor and prepares breakfast for hungover Richard and Ivan, we understand their masculine social bonds. Though their need to drink and carouse may cover deeper internal conflicts, all remains on the surface. Neither Ivan nor Richard demonstrates a yearning to change their drinking habits or their character weaknesses.
On the other hand, Sharky’s temperament differs. Interestingly, Andy Murray’s Sharky, the quietly patient, apparently organized and dutiful younger brother, appears the passive one in the family. We empathize as he serves his obstreperous, demanding, loutish brother whose indecorous and slovenly personal habits make us simultaneously cringe and laugh. Because Sharky has stopped drinking for the last two days, Richard twits him. Ignoring Richard’s insults and adhering to his demands, we understand that Sharky’s still waters may roil underneath. However, respectfully, Sharky does not intentionally agitate Richard when Richard carps at him.
Balancing the two men, at this juncture, Richard’s flaws blatantly overwhelm us. Sharky’s patience and apparent kindness to his brother kindle our emotions toward him. During their gossip about various townspeople, we learn hints of Sharky’s past. These give rise to the mystery of the meaning of this particular Christmas Eve.
The story’s pivot lies in the seemingly genteel, sophisticated and decorous Mr. Lockhart (note the symbolism of the name). Mr. Lockhart appears with Nicky Giblin (Tim Ruddy as an appropriate foil to Sharky), a friend of Richard and quasi-rival of Sharky. The arrival of these two, particularly Mr. Lockhart, advances the development of the characterizations and themes. Additionally, Lockhart pushes Sharky’s life events toward the edge of oblivion on this momentous Christmas Eve.
Matthew Broderick portrays Mr. Lockhart with steely, understated menace and ironic poignance. As usual Broderick mesmerizes when least expected. He also ferociously shocks us and raises the hair on the back of our necks. Not only does Lockhart catalyze the action, he establishes the stakes and propels us to another realm beyond the veil of nightmares into the depths of the human soul.
For Lockhart is more than Lockhart. Extreme in his hatred of mankind, this evil genius has come for Sharky’s soul, which Sharky yielded in a dark deal years ago to escape his reckoning. Broderick reveals the revelation of Lockhart’s real identity and intention in a meandering, poetic, then fearsome unleashing, which he ends with searing vitriol. As Lockhart matter-of-factly recounts the past, which Sharky has forgotten, a theme clarifies: We cannot escape ourselves, our lives, regardless of how we may try. Furthermore, even if the reckoning does not come when it should, it will come. How it comes reveals the full measure of Sharky as an Everyman.
In the twinkling of an eye, the tension between Sharky and Lockhart deepens and frightens us, assisted by Sharky’s invisible agony. Indeed, Broderick and Murray brilliantly infuse Lockhart’s evil with a palpable reality. In his tightly crafted play McPherson has seeded portentous clues of Broderick’s black work. Thus, we recall Richard’s and Ivan’s discussion early on of a frightening death and a restless ghost sighted by locals. With this clue and others, we become convinced that Broderick’s Devil is no joke. Sharky has jeopardized his own soul.
We understand that in a game of poker Lockhart will collect what Sharky owes him. But even Broderick’s Devil must be guided by the rules of the game. He must win fairly and Sharky must lose squarely. Perhaps hope will triumph. Perhaps Sharky will be lucky one more time.
As if to heighten the searing moment of evil, the fireplace heater glows. The lighting deepens. Sharky pales with horror and his face grimaces. And for the rest of the act and the next, Sharky’s inner torment manifests on the outside. Broderick and Murray, deftly shepherded by O’Reilly with light notes and dark, with softness and abrupt power, anoint us with the feeling that this Devil is the only reality. And the pain of terror and self-loathing hollowing out Sharky’s soul cannot ever subside.
Then time breaks open. And the mood transforms with the return of the others. With an unadorned, blithe happiness, Richard bangs his blind-faith way through the back door with Ivan and Nicky, thrilled from his adventure chasing the winos in the alley. With Richard’s joviality and boisterousness, we forget our fears. Mr. Lockhart’s sinister aspect lifts, but only for a time. For the act ends with a raging storm as the men get ready to play poker.
If in Act I the playwright sneaks in a clue here, an insightful revelation there, in Act II he configures these into key themes. Certainly, the suspense takes over. Who will win the last hand of poker? Mr. Lockhart philosophically discusses his experiences each Christmas Eve playing poker even in churches. Of course we and Sharky understand why, though the others miss the meanings. During the interlude while the others chase the winos from the alley again, Lockhart tells Sharky of his doom. Interestingly, he expresses disgust that man has been chosen for Christ’s love, while he must remain alone, the seafarer. Broderick’s Devil aria is both poetic and haunting. His rendering echoes with the profound depths of McPherson’s lyricism.
The players gamble, place bets, get more drunk. Lockhart enjoys himself, knowing the coming payoff tortures Sharky. Then comes another pivot. Despite Lockhart’s maudlin music-rejecting ways, Richard displays his faith in the Christmas message. Perhaps because of his year-long blindness, he also is the only one to demonstrate the full joy of the Christmas spirit. Thus, his proclamation of hope seems appropriate. Richard believes that his brother Sharky may rise from his miserable state and change.
It is this blind man’s faith that abides. Richard’s character represents the theme that despite our inadequate bodies and mammoth failures, on a random turn of the cards love may embrace us and the sunshine may dawn upon us with the clarity of wholeness. However, for those created to exist in darkness and cold, like the seafarer in this play, this can never be. For they exist for the sake of contrast, to call into greatness the substance of Christ’s birth. How McPherson ties in these dramatic tensions between the Devil’s nihilism and faith, the light and dark characterizations, the rivalry between Sharky and Nicky, and the redemption of love through one as unlikely as Richard, magically spirals into the resolution of this amazing play.
O’Reilly and the cast and design team have teased out with sensitivity and care the playwright’s melding of the mundane and the sacred. Indeed, the notion that supernatural beings peer at us from just beyond the veil of our nightmares or sit among us echoes throughout.
Finally, O’Reilly and the cast are spot-on in solidifying the contrasts and ironies. One is that goodness and love’s salvation may be present in the meanest, lowest and most crass of human beings. Yet, invidious perfidy often comes in a pleasing shape. And truly, even one as horrific as the seafaring Devil may deserve a bit of sympathy. His job to separate mankind from God so the Christmas Child can bring them together is a bitter, noxious one. Hearing the perspective of an outcast as we do in Mr. Lockhart’s aria provides us with a different take on an ancient adversary.
Aided by the able skills of O’Reilly, a sterling cast, and a talented design team, the themes and overall message of The Seafarer shine in the fullness of glory in this production. It runs two hours with one 15-minute intermission at the Irish Repertory Theatre until 24 May.