Marie Mullen and Brian Gleeson in The Saviour. Image Jed Niezgoda.
Few can write people as well as Deirdre Kinahan. In Halcyon Days, or Spinning, characters leap of the stage, grab you by the scruff and don't let go. Yet a polar tendency to have characters pontificate as representative mouthpieces, à la The Unmanageable Sisters, never lands nearly as well or as convincingly. If her latest play, The Saviour, falls untidily between both poles, it doesn't spend overly long battering you directly to make its points. Instead, Márie, a Magdalene Laundry survivor with some six or seven decades behind her, gets to talk about sex, religion, motherhood, and the changing face of Ireland. Wondering, in the name of the mother, the son, and the holy lover, what would Jesus do?
If Márie likes talking about sex, The Saviour seems to prefer to talk around it. Sex being the face it puts on a host of other issues Kinahan really wants to talk about. Sat up in bed, a prolonged opening finds Márie enjoying a post-coital smoke without any real trace of coitus. More like a Legionnaire of Mary enjoying a sneaky, masturbatory sex fantasy. Establishing, notionally, a flimsy tension between guilt and the pleasures of the body. Glowingly, Márie monologues about her mysterious lover Martin and his magical birthday present. A man who clearly knows where the clitoris is and what to do with it. Unlike her cumbersome dead husband, Colm, who clearly never found it in forty odd years. Still, if one man knows how to please her, she's still preoccupied with how best to please the men in her life. Like her gay son, Mel. The lusty Martin. And, of course, her first love, Jesus. Who gets an earful on which we eavesdrop as Márie recounts her first sexual encounter with Martin just prior to us meeting her, as well as her early life experiences. And who can blame her. In her pick and mix religion, a spanking, brand new loving Jesus may well be her shiny saviour, but Martin might well be her salvation.
Marie Mullen in The Saviour. Image Jed Niezgoda
All goes wonderfully well till we arrive at Stanhope Street. At which point Kinahan gives Márie a manifesto to recite on behalf of everyone who experienced the horrors of the Magdalene Laundries. In which Márie becomes eclipsed for being a mouthpiece, speaking less for herself, and less for everyone else as a result. Recalling a litany of evil passed off as salvation, suddenly we're in another play, one we swing in and out of, oscillating between intimate eavesdropping and a history lesson in horror. The introduction of Mel flips The Saviour into yet another play, one about a mother and son. If a doll sees the past being dragged into the present, a woman reclaiming her childhood and sexuality simultaneously feels a little disturbing. Yet it's a catalyst for some cracking crossfire between Mel and Márie, with the childlike doll creating an interesting, if obvious commentary. As does the introduction of Lucy and Sean to a world where the suffering of children never ends. Not even when they get older. When the victim enables, or continues, the legacy of abuse, sometimes out of a sheer and desperate loneliness.
Like two separate stories cobbled together, The Saviour switches from monologue to duologue at around the half way point, like a lazy switch from exposition to action. Yet Marie Mullen manages the switch seamlessly, being extraordinarily compelling as a woman whose spirituality amounts to a bad case of Stockholm Syndrome and all that that entails. Including desires that have a dark streak. Plant Marie Mullen in a bed and comparisons with Tom Murphy's Bailegangaire will never be far away, and never to any writers favour. Yet under Louise Lowe's impressive direction, Mullen's fabulous floozy with a fire in her belly transports us through her childhood and her womanhood, reliving each moment vividly while excavating some dark places. Unleashing her hellish venom onto her son, Mel. A man for whom the lights come on slowly, slower than it takes him to get to the point. Beaten down over the years into a soft submissiveness, yet not quite into submission, Mel delivers some home truths and tough choices. All conveyed wonderfully by Brian Gleeson in a superbly understated performance. Yet with camera favouring the screen rather than the stage, we usually only see one action/reaction during even the most intense scenes, with something vital getting lost in the transaction.
Brian Gleeson in The Saviour. Image Jed Niezgoda.
If The Saviour walks an unsteady line between "lets talk about sex" and "shut up and kiss me," its sexiest strength is Marie Mullen's invested performance. Even if, in the end, The Saviour opts mostly for talking. Talking about sex in order to talk about other issues, when you were hoping for an experience, and not the experience of talking about the experience. Which, now I've had to explain it, the mood's wore off. Still, in writing of Márie - her joys, girlishness, and viciousness - and with lines like; "Is that your idea of love? No, that's my experience of marriage," Kinahan can knock you sideways, with Mullen and Gleeson displaying wonderful chemistry. If the end strains with sentiment to the point of snapping its heart strings, its points have been made, if not always as powerfully as they might have been. But Mullen rises above all such drawbacks with a crowning performance, well worth the price of admission.
The Saviour by Deirdre Kinahan, directed by Louise Lowe and presented by Landmark Live/Landmark Productions, was streamed live from The Everyman Theatre as part of Cork Midsummer Festival on June 19 and 20. It is available on demand from June 21 till June 27.