Away With The Fairies
Sarah, a solicitor and wannabe soccer Mum, has recently lost her child and is now living alone in London. There she reconnects with Hat, a neighbour from back home in Tipperary, who has just given birth and is finding it difficult to adapt to her new role as mother. Meanwhile, the tragic, true tale of Tipperary woman, Bridget Cleary, murdered by her husband in 1895 because he maintained a changeling had replaced her, gradually unfolds. If “Porcelain,” by Margaret Perry, sees ghosts from times past and times present overlap and interweave in one woman’s mind, it soon becomes a tale fraught with too many problems. For even with its heart in the right place, “Porcelain” makes for too much of a hard sell that doesn’t deliver enough worth buying, despite some genuinely impressive performances.
Ultimately a slow burner, “Porcelain” gets off to a decent enough start. Two women, Hat and Sarah, engage in an unusual, mutually beneficial arrangement that immediately piques the interest, with both women representing conflicting needs and roles. Yet the bulk of what follows is spent charting events leading up to that arrangement, seen solely from Hat’s perspective. Events that reveal little in what is an extraordinarily ordinary unfolding. As is the drastically edited tale of Bridget Cleary, as imagined by Hat, which intrudes as much as it informs. Framed within a contemporary context, Bridget and her husband Michael might inhabit the same space as Hat and her devoted boyfriend Bill, yet they reveal little of real interest or insight, beyond contrasting representations of masculinity. Meanwhile, Hat's newborn cries relentlessly. Not until Hat’s unconvincing encounter with the ever present shapeshifter, Silvertongue, is the supernatural finally evoked and her need for freedom truly activated, juxtaposed against the tale of an independent minded woman burned alive for walking through a fairy fort. But what price freedom, and is it even possible?
Part historical interrogation of one woman’s tragic death, part supernatural thriller, part exploration of depression, especially postpartum depression, and of the expectations, and difficulties, facing young woman and mothers, Perry’s script is certainly ambitious in intent. Yet these admirable and lofty ambitions “Porcelain” fails to satisfactorily come to grips with. In the end you know as much about Bridget Cleary coming out as can be gleaned from the programme notes, its weak supernatural dimension is wedged in unconvincingly, postpartum depression may be there on stage but it’s never properly discussed, or properly recognized despite all the books being read, and the challenges facing a mother, or woman, needing her own space are never clearly articulated, disappearing into a supernatural ether, or metaphor, despite a promising attempt by Hat to address them early on.
Throughout, director Cathal Cleary opts for pauses and silences that, rather than evoking intensity, serve only to drag out pace, making the experience feel significantly longer than it actually is. Indeed, so prevalent are pauses and silences, you could probably trim at least a quarter of the running time simply by tightening them up. It quickly begins to feel self seriously broody, which, as you already know where its all going for the most part, proves counter productive to sustaining, or developing, a real depth of interest. Indeed, red herrings aside, which can disappoint as much as intrigue, it soon becomes a little underwhelming and predictable. Set and costume designs by Cécile Trémolières focus on the need for adapting to the multiple scene changes in “Porcelain’s” cinematic structure. Yet if these add little in terms of atmosphere, mood, or texture, Paul Keogan’s lighting design ably compensates, along with Denis Clohessy’s composition and sound design.
If staging and pace are sometimes less than stellar, Cleary nails it in eliciting a series of solid performances. Bamshad Abedi-Amin as the hapless, well meaning Bill, is perfect as the powerless boyfriend trying to hold it all together. Shouting outbursts aside, which quickly begin to feel like a cheap gimmick, Keith McErlean does remarkably well with the leanest of characters, Michael, whose sole function seems to be to unconvincingly interrogate the women he calls his wife, without any real sense of their relationship, back story, or his own personal qualities being established that would make either them, or him, sufficiently engaging. Lola Petticrew as the conflicted Hat does tremendously well carrying the burden of the piece, as does an excellent Helen Norton as the shapeshifter Silvertongue, even if her long list feels never ending long after you’ve got the point. Caitríona Ennis in what amounts to an extended cameo as Sarah, and Toni O’Rourke as the tragic Bridget Cleary, are both stunning. Ennis simply lights up the stage, as does O’Rourke whose self assured swagger and emotionally vulnerable presence embody the essence of a woman striding through life on her own terms before buckling beneath the burden, or being whisked away with the fairies, literal or metaphorical.
In feeling an absence of, or disconnect from, motherhood, or oneself, is sacrifice of that self for the sake of others the only real option? If Perry’s ambiguous ending manages to hit the target, by that stage “Porcelain” has already fallen far too wide of the mark. Indeed, when it comes to Bridget Cleary, her tale remains to be told. In the end, there are far too many unresolved problems with “Porcelain”, yet its cast are simply stellar, Ennis simply exceptional, and O’Rourke a revelation.
“Porcelain” by Margaret Perry, runs at the Peacock Stage of The Abbey Theatre until March 10th
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