Stanley Townsend in Solar Bones. Image by Peter Searle
You've heard the saying the movie's never as good as the book? The same might be said for the stage adaptation. Not that they're bad, just not quite as good as the book. Take Michael West's adaptation of Michael McCormack brilliant novel Solar Bones, original presented in 2020 at Kilkenny Arts Festival. The story of Marcus Conway trapped in his kitchen trying to remember his life. A novel written as a single sentence which charts interiority as only the novel can. Theatre visually externalising it, losing something in translation, compensating with what theatre does best.
If you're not familiar with the story, jump to the next paragraph and don't read the programme notes till after the show. If you are, you'll know middle-aged Marcus is Mayo's version of Bruce Willis in The Sixth Sense. A man who sees dead people and the dead person is him. Only he doesn't know it yet. As his life belatedly saunters before his eyes on All Souls Day, when the veil between this and the otherworld is weakest, Marcus struggles to figure out what's going on and why his house is empty?
With nothing at stake, aside from mild curiosity as to why Marcus is behaving oddly, Marcus can seem to drone on a bit. About his daughter's art exhibition, two types of concrete, his wife's horrific illness as a result of a Cryptosporidium outbreak, about politicians and engineers, and a one night stand in Prague. A one-sided conversation you'd normally cut short by claiming you have a pressing phone call to make. Yet shaped by first-class design and direction, and a towering performance, Marcus's experiences come to speak to the transcendent in the everyday. To the blood and guts of the body. To questions that haunt the soul. To our lived experiences of recent times.
Stanley Townsend in Solar Bones. Image by Set Murray
If McCormack's single sentence approach is rare, which West utilises in his script, it's not unheard of. Czech novelist Bohumil Hrabal's Dancing Lessons for the Advanced In Age did the same thing in 1964. The effect creating a heightened sense of interiority. Yet while Solar Bones marks an inner journey, it very much references the outer world. Blood, excrement, heartburn all ground the text in physicality. Lynne Parker's assured direction finding a balance between inner and outer, between storytelling and a man talking to himself. Allowing no eye contact with the audience, or direct address; the audience there, but not there. Like Marcus who, feeling through the detritus of his life, uses detail as description, introspection as exposition; West's unstrained handling of exposition being simply superb. Marcus the ghost in the machine, reflected brilliantly in Zia Bergin-Holly's skeletal set with its plastic skin. The days fading in and out, almost unnoticeable, as Bergin-Holly's lights and background shift imperceptibly, like the passing of time.
All of which a brilliant Stanley Townsend transforms with a performance bordering on poetry. An hour forty minutes is a long time to listen to anyone, let alone Marcus, whose everyday everyman is achieved at the cost of a little dullness. Yet courtesy of Townsend's sensitive performance, Solar Bones sees the ordinary elevated to the epic. Just like McCormack did with his 2016 novel of staggering beauty. But it took Rough Magic to place it in a room. It might lose something of its potency as a result, but it gives Marcus an affecting immediacy. Solar Bones well deserving of its Best Actor and Best Director awards in 2020.
Solar Bones by Michael McCormack, adapted by Michael West, presented by Kilkenny Arts Festival and Rough Magic, runs at The Abbey Theatre until October 29.
For more information visit The Abbey Theatre.