"I'm the son of the morning, Sharky. I'm the snake in the garden. I've come here for your soul this Christmas, and I've been looking for you all f**king day!"
On the coldest day of the year in Melbourne, the scene was well and truly set for Conor McPherson's supernatural drama meets modern-day Dublin black comedy "The Seafarer". Presented by Hoy Polloy theatre company, the play takes place on an ostensibly unexceptional Christmas Eve in Baldoyle, a coastal suburb north of Dublin. As a raffish, hard-drinking bevy of old "friends" gather for a game of poker, it soon becomes clear that they're not just playing for money this time. Like the Anglo-Saxon poem of the same name, the real game McPherson is alluding to is the game of life, and the blundering choices we make that can render us, in some cases perpetually, lost at sea.
In the intimate and somewhat clandestine Fortyfive Downstairs space, and with the foreboding thunder claps indistinguishable as coming from outside or from the sound system, it was hard not to feel like a sixth player at the cards table. The set and costumes superbly characterised a shabby male den, from the painfully sad looking Christmas tree in the corner to Sharkey's mis-fitted flannel shirt. Undeniably the most dominant prop usage was that of alcohol: with the likes of Harp, Miller, warm whisky, and the mysterious white beverage (that I don't think I ever want to try given the dramatic shift in action that swiftly followed its ingestion). All characters are either drunk for the entirety of the play, or descend at, some point, to seafaring depths of inebriation. With bottles and glasses constantly in hand, a mere extension of most characters' arms (it was fortuitous that there was an interval in which they could go to the bathroom!), either they were all, in fact, drinking real alcohol throughout the production, and hence were indeed drunk, or, their acting was highly effective and commendably free of reliance on the indistinguishable, slurry cliches of acting intoxicated. I'm hoping it was the latter, but who am I to judge? "When in Ireland!"
The first act effectively builds suspense, before the climactic revelation of Mr Lockhart's true identity and thirst for Sharky's soul. It was, however, somewhat slow-moving at times, with dialogue often seeming to go around in circles, tediously and repetitively, which was at odds with the narrative's building of momentum. This was, however, limited to sporadic moments in the first half of the show, and is my only criticism in an overall highly enjoyable production.
All five actors were evidently experienced stage performers, with overall very minimal accent slips, and a confidence and commitment to their individual performances permitting them to hold character and momentum despite two mobile phone incidences. Barry Mitchell's thirty years of acting experience was discernible, with his understated portrayal of Sharky, oscillating between weary sullenness, lugubrious resentment, violent rage and conciliatory hope. The embodiment of his helplessness in the face of his own haunted conscience and self-destructive ways makes you hold out hope that things will improve for him, even though you know such optimism is most likely as futile as his attempt to get off the drink.
Geoff Hickey's Richard Harkin is both enduring and endearing, igniting a paradoxical response of wanting to both strangle and mother him. With an ominous presence, Mr Lockhart, played by Michael Cahill (aka. the Devil/the guy who I went to bed that night fearing may show his sinister face in my existential nightmares), is a Mephistophelian entity, who earns both pity and fear from the audience. In a thrilling torrent of poetry (the Devil easily gets the best lines in McPherson's play), his accounts of hell are truly terrifying. Seemingly a celestially intensified experience of daily existence, he warns both the audience and Sharky: “You are about to find out that time is bigger and blacker and so much more boundless than you could ever have thought possible with your puny broken mind.”
David Passmore is engaging as Nicky Giblin, amiable in spite of his garishness, with his simplicity providing relief from the other, more emotionally burdened characters in the quintuplet. The highlight for me, however, was Adam Rafferty's Ivan, who is symbolically in a perpetual search for something: his glasses, his car, his next drink, and, above all, forgiveness from both his wife and himself. His passivity and good-nature, combined with a brilliant drunken waddle, render his performance the stand-out of the night. With Ivan's myopia, Richard's blindness and the blind drunkenness of the other characters, McPherson slyly wields the motif of sight/blindness to communicate a Christian notion of faith – which is ultimately, blind. The play's denouement gives us hope in the never-ending and at times blind love of God for humans, in spite of our perceived failures, regrets, missed opportunities and connections.
McPherson's supernatural tragicomic play The Seafarer is infused with Christian mythology, and yet even atheists would find it difficult to refrain from sympathising with the plight of a lost soul searching for some meaning in life. Like the titular character in the poem, Sharky learns the sapiential lesson of the necessity of patience in adversity. With the eternally off-centred picture of the Virgin Mary looming over the characters and audience alike, both play and poem can be seen as reminding Christians to be faithful and to maintain their beliefs. And yet despite the Christian imagery, the play makes suspending secular skepticism easy, successfully restoring our faith – of whatever configuration – in the simple gestures of connection, charity, and the possibility of change.