Tuesday, 15 January 2013


My husband brought me to see The Dead at The Abbey Theatre for my birthday at the weekend. Frank McGuinness adapted James Joyce's short story for the stage and I think he did a fine job. It is a story that is alive with music (Joyce loved to sing) and McGuinness brings that to the fore beautifully. Not only do the cast sing their way through the production, they also dance and make a joyous play of what is a somewhat giddy story about mortality that ends on a sombre note. The whole thing is beautifully choreographed and scored, with musical arrangements by Conor Linehan. I can imagine it becoming a regular Christmas-time play - this production, with its snow, singing and candlelight, is very festive.

Anita Reeves and Ingrid Craigie as the Morkan sisters - Pic by Ros Kavanagh.
People tend to focus on the epiphanic ending when they talk about The Dead but everything that comes before works towards that profound ending. The story is set on the Feast of the Epiphany, the last day of Christmas, in 1904, and it centres around a party thrown by three spinsters: the sisters Julia and Kate Morkan, and their younger niece, Mary Jane. The party takes place in their house on Usher's Island on Dublin's quays and it is a sumptuous feast with goose, spiced beef, ham, jellies, blancmange, port, sherry, stout, pudding and - my favourite description from the story - 'a large green leaf-shaped dish with a stalk-shaped handle, on which lay bunches of purple raisins and peeled almonds, a companion dish on which lay a solid rectangle of Smyrna figs, a dish of custard topped with grated nutmeg, a small bowl full of chocolate and sweets wrapped in gold and silver papers...'

The three hostesses are music teachers and their party is peopled with their pupils, a well known tenor, various family friends and their beloved nephew/cousin Gabriel Conroy and his Galway-born wife, Gretta. There are rivalaries and squabbles that play out among the guests, some of whom are more favoured than others, and are to be pandered to as much as anything else. One of these is Mrs Malins, played by Rosaleen Linehan with her usual vigour; Lorcan Cranitch hams it up a bit as her drunken son, Freddy. I think the audience - perhaps with John Huston's muted film version of The Dead in mind - were surprised at how often the play drew laughter and Cranitch provoked much of it.

Derbhle Crotty is a dignified Gretta and Stanley Townsend as Gabriel gives a solid, if at times hurried, performance as Gabriel. Anita Reeves and Ingrid Craigie are perfect as the Morkan sisters and are totally believable as genteel Dubliners of that era.

But it is the ensemble cast of fine singers who really steal the show: so many clear, sweet voices that are such a pleasure to listen to, moreso because the frequency of their singing comes as a surprise. Near the end, Pascal Kennedy's low-key performance of 'The Lass of Aughrim', as Michael Furey's ghost, is spine-tingling.

The set by Riccardo Hernandez is well done - very simple but with enough flourishes to feel grandiose: it has to work hard as the street, the interior, the hallway, two different rooms in Usher's Island, and a bedroom in The Gresham Hotel. The dining room table scene is a short one but it is magically executed under candlelight. Joan Bergin's costumes are gorgeous.

So how does the final scene come off? Well, for me, it worked. I had heard it was a tad hysterical but that was not the case last Saturday night. Gretta has her say (that was when my tears flowed) then falls asleep. And Gabriel manages to sound sympathetic rather than pompous as he ponders the great love the young Michael Furey once had for Gretta. The hairs stood on my scalp when he delivered his final line: 'My soul swoons - my soul hears the snow falling faintly through the universe and faintly falling, like the descent of their last end, upon all the living and the dead.'

The Dead runs at The Abbey until this Saturday, the 19th January. Alas, the run is sold out, but it is always worth a try for returns.


rozz lewis said...

Oh, it sounds brilliant, Nuala. Happy birthday and well done to the husband for the cool present! I really wanted to see it and had re-read the story in anticipation but it was not to be!
Your review has made me feel like I was there so thanks!


Cheers Rozz. If you are desperate, ring The Abbey and ask about returns. You may get to it yet!

Insinbad said...

Great review babe. You summed up the night very well. It was a really enjoyable night. The set, music and singing created a wonderful atmosphere. I'd gladly go again with you if it became a Christmas staple.

The Divorced Lady's Companion to Living in Italy said...

Sounds like a beautiful evening. Happy Birthday to you and what a thoughtful hubbie you have!