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Dublin Fringe Festival 2017: Close To The Sun

Mary Murray in Close To The Sun. Photo uncredited


A Greek Travesty

By the time the early announcement is made that “Close To The Sun” might have some jokes but it won’t be funny, it’s already a case of stating the obvious. Morbidly ambient pre-show music, followed by a dirge sung in semi-darkness, make it clear that the tone is going to be funereal rather than that of the Aussie wedding we thought we were all attending. A miniature chorus slinking around with lights on their heads tell us we’re in the realm of tragedy with a capital T, heavy-handed and handled heavily. The result is a production that soon finds itself in trouble with a capital T. Dealing in Greek tragedy, “Close To The Sun” a new ensemble play for The Corps Ensemble by award winning playwright, Philip Doherty, becomes instead a double travesty. Firstly, for the waste of some astonishingly good performances on such disappointingly weak material and, secondly, for the story Doherty almost got to tell but didn’t, that could have had some genuine power had he not chased after myth so obviously and so hard, leaving a weakened tale to fend for itself.

What begins as a tale of a wedding in Perth between an Irishman and his Aussie fiancé, cursed by the arrival of his brother from the motherland, soon descends into a game of spot the myth. Greek, Irish, Australian, Biblical, take your pick; likelihood is you’re going to find it in there somewhere, whether it actually fits or not, with no bonus points for guessing where the inspiration for the play’s title is derived from. Some references are subtle, but most you don't have to look for too hard interrupting, as they do, the narrative flow like large potholes in the middle of the road. Throughout, a weakened narrative competes consistently with efforts by “Close To The Sun” to legitimise it’s own mythic and cultural credibility. Tales of serpents and flowers, Oedipal desires and Celtic phoenixes often obliterate the characters telling them in an effort to discuss questions of culture and myth, the Irish diaspora and national identity. Indeed, characters are often crafted to fit the myth. Even so, “Close To The Sun” never really offers any serious exploration of culture, myth, identity, or the diaspora.

Humour conceals a lot of sins throughout, for if there’s a good deal of laughter, there’s not a great deal of power. With many characters underdeveloped, relationships push for credibility. Indeed, some genuinely funny lines prove far more successful at revealing character than lines striving for substance or weight. The stag party scene sums it up perfectly. Incredibly inventive theatrically, with characters owning their moments for a moment, there’s an immediacy and purpose that’s wonderfully engaging. Until obvious tirades on problems with Ireland, or the Celtic Phoenix, take you out of the moment. In the end “Close To The Sun’ feels like being invited to a sex party in a brewery only to find all the guests are celibate, recovering alcoholics, whining about their predicaments, with their frustrations plain to see. By the time they finally decide to let their hair down the party is nearly over, most of the interesting guests are gone, and you’re quite ready to grab a taxi home.

Heavy-handed direction by Stephen Darcy is something of a mixed bag. If scenes like the stag party and wedding preparations are wonderfully detailed and theatrical, his handling of tragedy seems cliched and lacks impact. Performances, however, are another story. Michael Bates delights as an Australian wedding planner. Edwin Mullane is wonderfully understated as the country lad working abroad, a perfect foil for Sean Doyle’s live large Dub in Australia, who is just outstanding. Together the three make up a sort of ramshackle chorus which is a bit hit and miss, with all being more successful as characters than chorus. Toni O’Rourke and Mary Murray as the Australian girls with more than a few secrets show great finesse, extracting all they can from two less than stellar characters, with Murray crafting some powerful moments during the wedding scene: power finally arriving too late to save the day. Jed Murray and Neill Fleming as brothers at each other’s throats both deliver strong performances, sparking at times into something you hope would ignite, knowing that if it did it could be memorable. But it never quite gets there, sizzling out far too often because the script simply doesn’t match the level of performances.

Instead of trusting the mythic elements inherent in its own story, ”Close To The Sun” feels compelled to reference, and borrow from, far to many others. Feeling like sleeve notes to The Golden Bough, Bulfinch, Lady Gregory, Jung and Joseph Campbell, all crammed into a single script, “Close To The Sun” gets lost in the myth mire without ever offering any serious exploration of myth in itself. In the end, a potentially intriguing and genuinely powerful story is forced to take a back seat and left underdeveloped. The Corps Ensemble work diligently developing their performance skills and this is very much in evidence, making “Close To The Sun” far more engaging than it actually is. Doherty is a smart and talented writer, as his excellent Pilgrim made evidently clear, but “Close To The Sun” is not his finest moment.

“Close To The Sun” by Philip Doherty and The Corps Ensemble runs at Smock Alley Theatre as part of Dublin Fringe Festival 2017 until September 17th

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