Dublin Theatre Festival 2016: Death at Intervals
Suspended life and arrested Death
Death is a maiden with long, white hair. A stalker in a red coat, her obsession directs itself towards a soft spoken musician. She has a letter which, like herself, she wants, yet does not want to give to him. Whatever she chooses, there’s a price to be paid. In ‘Death at Intervals’ by Kellie Hughes, José Saramago’s novel, ‘As Intermiténcias da Morte’ serves as the foundation on which an artistic Tower of Babel is built. Using the languages of the novel, the play text, music and physical performance, ‘Death at Intervals’ is a brave attempt to break new ground. One that, when it’s good is very, very good indeed. But at other times it gets grounded down and side tracked in the weighty and ponderous.
There are two competing stories in ‘Death at Intervals’ which don't really feed into each other all that well. The first concerns itself with the star crossed love affair between Death and a musician which begs for, but cannot find, consummation. The other, less satisfying tale, is based around the premise of Death taking a holiday or going on strike. No one dies, but they continue to grow old until the aged out-populate the young, with both yearning for Death to return. While an interesting idea that tells us something of Death's state of mind, it’s never fully done justice, or really needed, and feels included by way of homage to Saramago. What it yields is a simplistic, Buddhist like notion that we’re all going to die someday tautly wrapped up in overwrought language. Language which neither tells us anything new nor takes us any place interesting. Indeed, stories like that of an old man and his grandchild don't bring anything of significance and serve as a distraction, slowing the whole right down, sapping energy from the more profound and powerful story of Death and her desire.
In contrast, Hughes’ tale of a forlorn Death being touched by a musician is heart breakingly beautiful. Here, her use of language sets up a wonderful contrast, juxtaposing the austerity of Death’s speech with the ordinariness of the man’s conversation. While Death’s tone has the weight of eternal pronouncements, he struggles to articulate and make sense of it all, with the clash crafting some wonderfully touching moments, even if structurally it does feel like a Q&A session with answers not forthcoming. But the spaces opened beyond the limits of words are beautifully addressed by the languages of music and physical performance, wonderfully rendered by an outstanding soundtrack by Alma Kelliher and Raymond Scannell, and some exquisitely choreographed sequences by Olwen Fouéré.
Michael Cummins' set and lighting designs are perfect compliments to Kelliher and Scannell’s excellent soundtrack, which alone is worth the price of admission. If Scannell’s performance as the slightly baffled musician falling for the lady in red is beguilingly gentle and easy, Olwen Fouéré’s deep feeling Death brims with power, pain and irresistible presence. Indeed, Fouéré elevates even the more problematic aspects of ‘Death at Intervals’ to something exceedingly watchable. But when she steps out of the dark of the script into the deeper dark of the body, her articulations open up even greater interpretive possibilities. Ascending or descending a ladder hints at power beneath the surface, with movement sacrificing pace for a painstaking consistency. If at times this feels a little too limiting and repetitive, it reinforces the overwhelming restraint at the heart of Death, exquisitely realised during Fouéré’s heart rendering sequence beneath the piano, or when, with the gentlest raising of a hand, she conveys infinite heartache and longing.
Like life, ‘Death at Intervals’ is a series of moments, many memorable, some forgettable, others somewhere in between. But art is not life. It involves a process of selection and rejection to ensure each moment counts. Hughes’ problematic script has some exquisite moments, but its divided attention results in some others that suffer by way of comparison to those which can blow you away. Even so, Hughes has selected wisely in her casting and if the whole doesn’t work as well as it could, ‘Death at Intervals’ delivers two great performances and one terrific soundtrack.
‘Death by Intervals’ by Kellie Hughes and Galway International Arts Festival, runs at Smock Alley Theatre as part of The Dublin Theatre Festival until October 8th