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  • Chris O'Rourke

Madeira


Geraldine Plunkett and Deirdre Monoghan in Michael J Harnett's Madeira. Image uncredited

****

You wouldn’t call it a brilliant play, Michael J. Harnett’s latest offering, Madeira. A triptych of scenes rather than three acts. Tight, verbal vignettes about two sets of sisters performed by three actresses. Where conversation is action, meaning endless dialogue packed with novelistic exposition delivered by characters sitting around tables. Its story full of clever and clunky touches, including a last minute sting in the tail and a shopping list of contrivances. So no, not a brilliant play. But Madeira can still knock your socks off. Its trio of stars, under Vinnie McCabe’s assured direction, elevating Madeira into something truly touching and tender. All its stars shining, with one going full supernova.


A Dublin saunter down memory lane, Madeira’s tweeness proves a velvet glove concealing an iron fist. The “yes, I remember it well” tempered by “but I wish it might have been otherwise.” Recalling when daughters were mandated to look after their parents into their old age. Women to cater to the whims of their families, especially the men. A time when pregnancy out of wedlock meant salvation via a shotgun wedding so the bad girl could maintain her good reputation. That, or damnation in the shame and guilt of a Magdalene Laundry. A time when women were expected to sacrifice their lives in the service of others. Some say little's changed.

Brenda Brooks and Geraldine Plunkett in Michael J Harnett's Madeira. Image uncredited


Like Betty. A dowdy woman with a pressing secret. The sister who stayed at home with an ailing parent whilst glamorous sister Angela pursued a life in fashion. The two aging spinsters reunited under the family roof. Betty catering to Angela’s needs, like a bad habit she can’t break. Both reminiscing about Madeira cakes over coffee in Bewley’s, and about what was, what might have been, and what’s coming. Geraldine Plunkett’s steely Angela displaying a shaky exterior hiding her middle class, Protestant insecurity. Harnett playing with tensions between class and religion to highlight what unites rather than what divides us. Angela a foil for Deirdre Monaghan’s phenomenal Betty. A woman whose life was unfulfilled, its promise always just around the corner. Whose sisterly love is laced with bitterness, but is herself never bitter. Monaghan’s masterclass performance a Miss Jean Brodie of thwarted opportunities, timed, paced and delivered to perfection.


Only for Monaghan to do it all over again. Doubling up in the second scene as the working class, married and harried, Catholic good girl Lu. A low budget Shirley Valentine also sacrificing her life for others. Challenging her sister, the unrepentant Mona, to take care of their father only to have the appalled Mona hit her with some home truths. Brenda Brooks brilliant as the no nonsense sister insisting you always put on your own mask first as they, too, enjoy a Bewley’s coffee. Monaghan’s transition to self-awareness simply sensational. The chemistry between Brooks and Monaghan enriching every fused moment. Chemistry also informing the final scene between Brooks and Plunkett as more of Harnett’s contrivances bring both together for a final resolution.


For those of a certain generation, especially women, Madeira speaks to memories often bittersweet. For those who love theatre, three superb performances make Madeira a memorable experience. It’s not to diminish Brooks and Plunkett to say Monaghan is exceptional. It just a fact. Turning in not one, but two richly detailed, beautifully pitched, sensitively portrayed, tour de force performances. Worth the admittance price alone.


Madeira, by Michael J. Harnett, runs at The Viking Theatre until May 11.


For more information visit The Viking Theatre

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