Dublin Theatre Festival 2018: St Nicholas
Twilight of the Gods
There’s strong shades of Patrick Kavanagh in Conor McPherson’s “St Nicholas,” a tale of a curmudgeonly, middle-aged man, extremely fond of the drink, frequenting arty Dublin pubs with Dublin arty types who becomes infatuated, Raglan Road style, with a beautiful young girl. First produced in 1997 “St Nicholas” makes hay with stereotypical notions of the theatre critic as bad tempered hack, a self-hating parasite, dead on the inside, living off the talents of those who actually have talent. Following a career ruining review, the ruined career being his own, the unnamed critic spontaneously departs for London in pursuit of a young actress. She’s not overly impressed, leaving the drunken critic to drown himself deeper in alcohol. Meeting a vampire who offers him employment, the critic becomes a functioning Renfield, securing fresh victims for the vampire William and his female cohorts. Until, once again, he meets the young actress and introduces her to his new found acquaintances.
With a razor sharp wit lacerating the vanities and foibles of Irish theatre “St Nicholas” shifts from the recognisible to the supernatural when McPherson’s vampiric critic meets a real life vampire. If less resonant than when first produced in 1997, with both print media and the drama critic as the all knowing arbiter of theatrical taste experiencing a twilight of the gods, “St Nicholas” still has much to say about theatre. About the space between science and the supernatural. About vampiric natures and of living in obedience to them. About story telling and the performance of self-made fictions. A metaphoric monologue of monstrous proportions, “St Nicholas’” narrative payoff might not be as strong as it might have been, but as characters go, McPherson’s unnamed critic is a vicious delight. As is Brendan Coyle’s superlative performance.
Under Simon Evans' excellent direction, location is everything, with the audience made intimate to Peter McKintosh’s atmospheric office design, many sitting on the edge of the stage in antique chairs. With its old typewriter, desk, and piles of broadsheets, McKintosh’s set hints of faded glory from a journalistic golden era. Five windows covered in newspaper block out the sunlight, but Matt Daw’s impeccable light design creates a haunting, twilit, liminal space, a solid world pressed in on all sides by shades and shadows seen like ghosts on the edge of vision. Beautifully informed by a subtle yet superb sound design by Christopher Shutt. Into which Brendan Coyle’s cantankerous critic, who loves you to hate him because he desperately needs to know love, is marvellously rendered in a mesmerising performance by Coyle that’s simply not to be missed.
If poking fun at the theatre critic never grows old, mobile phones going off in the middle of a performance very quickly do. It is beyond baffling that some people still choose to ignore requests to switch their phones off, showing complete disregard for other audience members, and, most importantly, for the performers. It's bad enough when a phone rings in a large, loud production, but when it’s an actor onstage alone, in intimate proximity with the audience, it’s a total disgrace for which there’s no excuse. Even an actor of Coyle’s stature is going to be knocked momentarily out of his rhythm, along with the rest of the audience. Thankfully Coyle is of the calibre to quickly pull it all back again, being a consummate professional who graciously didn’t make a big deal of it. One suspects McPherson’s critic would've had a few choice words to say. And rightly so.
“St Nicholas” by Conor McPherson, produced by Donmar Warehouse, runs at Smock Alley Theatre as part of Dublin Theatre Festival 2018 until October 14, continuing its run until October 20.