In an interview appended to his novel The Whereabouts of Eneas McNulty, Sebastian Barry declares, “While I was writing plays over the last ten years I had not given up the novel form.” And “I usually write plays in long speeches.” So much had he not given up the novel that he transported it lock, stock, and barrel into his playwriting, long speeches and all. If you wish to experience how undramatic a play can get, check out his Our Lady of Sligo.
It concerns the slow – to be fair, the interminable – dying of Mai O’Hara (Barry’s grandmother) in an austere Dublin hospital room. Superlatively embodied, or disembodied, by the marvelous Sinéad Cusack, Mai is perishing of a cancer presumably induced by years of drunkenness and attrition, while the play is expiring of parochialism and dullness. Our Lady smells of whiskey-breathed provincialism, and tastes of gnawing acrimony sweating to sound poetic. At its third- or fourth-best, Irish writing depends too heavily on sexual repression and existential frustration finding their outlet in muttered curses, strangulated sobs, sodden sentimentality, and drink-inspired garrulity. When this stew is served up in oversize portions, even blunted taste buds recognize it as all too Irish.
Here is Miss Cusack, hauntingly lovely and inspiredly ravaged, lashing out at her worthless souse of a spouse and disappointing daughter, or conjuring up her dashing dead father and maternally comforted by her dead cousin between attacks of acute physical pain, all glowingly conveyed. Yet I could not endure to the end – from boredom, not depression.
The other imported Irish actress, Andrea Irvine, is fine as a dedicated nurse, with the local contingent keeping up as best they can. But never has mortal coil been divested in a draggier shuffle.