Hearts On Fire In The Midlands
What men desire most is not the approval of women, it’s the approval of other men. Their imagined standing among their male peers, their frail credibility, built on self-made myths of blondes on the side, beer consumed, or brave deeds on a building site. Or on getting to lay the local beauty queen, half their age, while their wives languish in the absence of their husband’s affection. Masculinity and the male undergoing a premature mid-life crisis comprises just one aspect of Eugene O’Brien’s richly layered “Eden”. A play that explores, with piercing brilliance, men and women, loneliness and relationships, sexual desire and sexual fantasy, and the pleasure, plight and pitfalls of small town life during an average Midlands weekend.
Since it was first performed on The Peacock stage in 2001, later transferring to the Abbey’s main stage, “Eden” has enjoyed considerable and well-deserved success. So much so it has had countless productions, by all and sundry, during the intervening years. Begging the question, do we need another one? Unravel Productions, in association with Little Shadow Theatre Company, have decided we do. But wait up. For with a few minor adjustments, this might well prove to be one of the better ones by far.
Set over the course of a single, Midlands weekend, “Eden” follows married couple, Breda and Billy, whose relationship is about to crash on the rocks. Billy fantasises about a local young girl, Breda about being chosen from a harem and ravaged by a sultan while Billy is forced to watch. Both haven’t properly touched each other in God knows how long. Overweight and overaged, at least in her own mind, Breda has been working hard to get herself back in shape so she can make Billy proud and desirous of her once more. Which is going to happen this weekend, as Breda gets dressed up and heads out on the town with Billy. She doesn't want much, just to recapture their perfect first evening when Billy first danced with her, surrounded by cheap drinks and dry ice, listening to Spandau Ballet playing True. Yet Billy has other plans for tonight. James Galway and his golden flute being top of his list, whom Billy desperately wants to impress. If Billy can bed the local fine young thing, Imelda Egan, daughter of a cuckolded neighbour Ernie, he’s bound to become the stuff of legend in Galway’s estimation. Breda and his two young daughters might prick his conscience, but Imelda pricks his desires, which Billy hasn’t felt for Breda for a long, long time. As the night wears on and the alcohol takes hold, both might discover it’s best to be careful what they wish for. For it might come, or it might not, but either way all will inevitably become different.
If O’Brien’s densely layered script seems a little dated by its details (babysitters are more likely to get lost in their screens than magazines, and the absence of mobile phones suggests a late eighties/early nineties time frame), its experiential richness is timeless. Structured around two alternating monologues “Eden” traverses the small town, rural community experience with such finesse and precision, it feels like a snapshot perfectly captured and beautifully conveyed. “Eden’s” richness of language, bare set, and relentless energy presents serious challenges for any performer, and many have fallen short of its inherent demands. Something director Jed Murray is mindful of, looking to steer a steady course between the light and the dark, striving for a ying yang sense of balance, which, those moments when it arrives, can be breathtakingly beautiful.
Michael O’Kelly as Billy makes some strong choices, set against some equally strong choices by Carolyn Bracken as Breda. If O’Kelly’s Billy sees the demands of life as getting in the way of him having the one thing he wants, Bracken’s Breda wants to embrace her life and live it. As a result, Bracken’s performance is full of variety and richness, beautifully nuanced. Indeed, Bracken is a revelation, her Breda as raw and vulnerable as a barely healed wound freshly stitched together, the slightest pressure likely to split her wide open again. Soft, strong, vulnerable yet powerful, Bracken is soul stirringly good, delivering an extraordinary performance, her Breda often a frail gazelle trapped in the moonlight, staring straight ahead at the hunter’s scope. A perfect foil for O'Kelly’s single-minded Billy, whose relentless energy ensures we understand this deeply dislikeable male desperately trying to hide from himself. Yet it’s an unrelenting energy that can leave something untouched in places, hampering, at times, the chemistry between O’Kelly and Bracken that’s pressing to come through. While O’Kelly beautifully conveys Billy’s obsessiveness, there’s so much more seething underneath, seeping through the cracks at the end, as Billy’s world is forever changed. The unguarded O’Kelly delivering a powerhouse moment that leaves you floored and begging for more.
Sixteen years on, “Eden” still has the power to blow you away. It’s tale of a man-boy, Billy, not quite being the heart breaker he likes to think he is, and his wife, Breda, a wounded child trapped in a woman’s body desperate to be loved, grabs you by the scruff of the neck and shakes you to the core. But only when in the safe hands of two strong performers. In which case, be prepared. O’Kelly’s performance could very well break your heart. Bracken’s will most certainly steal it.
“Eden” by Eugene O’Brien, directed by Jed Murray, produced by Unravel Productions, in association with Little Shadow Theatre Company, runs at Smock Alley Theatre until July 1st
For more information, visit Smock Alley Theatre