|The Sunday Independent|
The Empress of India ***
THE world is a cruel place, and security in the form of religious faith or emotional stability ill equips us to deal with it. That's the conclusion of Stuart Carolan's play Empress of India, Druid's Theatre Festival production at the Abbey.
There are two strands: family affection proving inadequate to the demands of adult realities, and the desperate attempt to return to the womb of religious certainty when its inadequacies have also been made abundantly clear.
Seamus, the one-time slightly celebrated actor, drifts in and out of lucidity as he approaches death. His sons Martin and Matty are tormented by their "happy" childhood as much as by the early loss of their mother and the recent disappearance in London of their young sister Kate.
Seamus rails against his loneliness, harking back to the golden era with his wife by his side and his children in his arms.
The sons, particularly Matty, remember things slightly differently: shrinking miserably and inarticulately before his father's barbed jeers, he is told, "I never loved you less; it's just my way," the eternal cry of the cruelly selfish and indifferently self-absorbed.
Martin desperately wants to believe in religious faith: taught in childhood that it was as essential as it was consoling, life has already taught him of its fraudulence as he despairs over the loss of Kate and his own unsatisfactory love life. Now he longs with double guilt for its certainty: he wants its consolations, and is terrified of its retribution because he can no longer believe.
And there is an additional silent testament to the dangers of innocence: the audience knows of Kate's fate while her brothers agonise over her disappearance - her silent figure is paraded, contemplating the angry sparking rails of the London underground and its tunnelled roar. We know she is one of the many for whom it has been an escape into the grave.
In the opening sequence, Seamus wanders with angry petulance around his room railing against infirmity and loss, but the dominant image is his arms in cruciform. And crucifixion is the dominant theme in the play: the family is crucified by its emotional infancy as it is crucified by its loss of faith in faith itself.
The theme is almost suffocatingly 21st-century Irish; our society is overwhelmed by our unique interweaving of politics and religion. The mind tells us that we have no faith, the gut says otherwise: our history pours "cultural Catholicism" into our veins and cuts us adrift from the adult consolation of reason. We cannot accept that the rational world is a desirable place.
Carolan's play is very nearly a monumental achievement in tackling this complexity. "Almost" because he does not take his thesis quite far enough, and because the emotional threads and the spiritual threads do not intertwine closely enough. Also, the play is considerably in need of editing, particularly in the first half: its wordiness is self-indulgent.
What is a monumental achievement is Garry Hynes's direction, along with Francis O'Connor's set. The backdrop of a huge, fragmented mirror allows much of the action to be played in reflection, a wonderful image of remove and fracture.
Sean McGinley's Seamus is both moving and pathetic at times, but there are instances of self-indulgence which jar. Tadhg Murphy is superb as the terminally damaged Matty, and Aaron Monaghan has an impressively angry restraint as the haunted Martin. Sarah Jane Drummey as Martin's girlfriend is also excellent, and Catherine Walsh and Sarah Green complete the cast.