Theatre Review by Matthew Murray - December 6, 2007
The National Theatre of Great Britain’s production of The Seafarer, a new play written and directed by Conor McPherson. Set and costume design by Rae Smith. Lighting design by Neil Austin. Sound design by Mathew Smethurst-Evans. Fight Director Thomas Schall. Cast: Conleth Hill, Ciarán Hinds, Sean Mahon, David Morse, Jim Norton.
The key word being "usually." The National Theatre of Great Britain's production of McPherson's deceptively jolly play, which just arrived at the Booth under the playwright's own direction, packs in more cheer than most productions of A Christmas Carol and more chills than any given blustery, blizzardy night. That McPherson has even hidden a Christmas message or two amid the beats of his study of loners both coltish and occult convening on Christmas Eve is only the rum sprinkled on already delectable fruitcake.
Rum, in fact, is one of the few liquors not copiously consumed by the quintet as the celebrate and try to cobble some sense of the year and lives they've left behind. The Scrooge most in need of reforming is "Sharky" Harkin (David Morse), the temper-prone boatman who's just returned to his home north of Dublin after time away working down south and watching most of his future employment prospects dry up. His older brother, Richard (Jim Norton), has lost his even more precious sight, and is now dependent on Sharky for nearly everything. Their friend, Ivan (Conleth Hill), has a habit of coming over for an evening and never leaving - usually for reasons related to his own alcohol consumption.
That's something Sharky would like to believe he's abandoned, especially two and a half decades after an incident that left him on the brink of ruin, but old habits can be so hard to break. That's especially true when he must contend with annoying gadabout Nicky Giblin (Sean Mahon), who drops in only barely invited and brings with him a guest of esteemed manner, all-consuming knowingness, and a penchant for do-or-die card playing. The man (played to fiery perfection by Ciarán Hinds) claims his name is Mr. Lockhart, but his red necktie and jacket lining can't help but suggest another name - Santa, all jumbled up? - might be more appropriate.
The card game, so intense that souls actually are on the line, doesn't arrive until Act II. But that's more time than McPherson and Hinds need to build the threat of this mysterious man with a habit of getting what he wants. The occasional burst of incapacitation to Sharky, the faint bursts of lights extinguishing themselves or flickering for no discernible reason, and even Hinds's reactions to ostensibly ordinary things (you can all but hear his eyes cry for mercy when hymns come floating over the radio) are all spine-tingling proof that the person arriving this Christmas isn't likely to be anyone's Lord and Savior.
Moments like these are as creepy as it gets - if the grander ghost stories McPherson wove in plays like The Weir and Shining City really pushed your buttons, you have little to fear here. Which isn't to say you'll necessarily be let off easy: Mr. Lockhart's descriptions of his home turf, seemingly an eternity away from Sharky's numbing existence, are as unsettling as anything McPherson has written. And if you can shrug off this travelogue, or his ironclad pronouncement that "time is much bigger and blacker and so much more boundless than you have ever thought possible," you're more resilient than I am.
There are some instances when The Seafarer becomes slightly unmoored, as if McPherson is trying too hard to pelt the darkness with comedy or he is too visibly reorganizing his chess pieces, but these are isolated transgressions. Most of the time, he taps into the deepest recesses of loneliness and despair, with piercing - but never depressing - accuracy. You might even wonder how a play so foreboding could also be so funny, but as Tracy Letts also proved in his just-opened August: Osage County, it's possible (perhaps even preferable) to use levity as a bridge to more profound meaning. Here, it's a reminder that friends and love can remain even when hopelessness has apparently obliterated them.
Each of the actors portrays his character's unique grappling with this in ways so varied that you experience the full range of masculine dissolution from a fairly limited cross-section of Irish society. Morse's despondent take anchors the evening with its familiarity, though his guy-next-door charm likeability allows you to give up on him entirely. Norton is so thoroughly addled as Richard, yet so in tune with his own desires (usually for stout), that you can't feel as though he sees quite a bit more than he lets on. Hill has built the biggest shield of all around Ivan, but cracks most convincingly when he articulates his own near-brush with Mr. Lockhart's charms. Mahon is delightfully empty-headed as the most well-adjusted, but least substantial, of the group.
But it's Mr. Lockhart that's the most unavoidable - and irresistible. Hinds doesn't make him into a run-of-the-mill moustache-twirler or a mere Grinch suffering from a too-small heart, but unlocks in him seasonal spirit merely 180 degrees removed from the traditional. His weapons go beyond mere humbugging: brooding charm, a slightly tarnished innocence, and a firm grasp on the truth. Hinds never lets you forget that Mr. Lockhart knows who he is and what he wants, and the closer to (or farther from) that he gets, the more terrifying he becomes.
Not your typical yuletide yarn? Maybe. But in The Seafarer, McPherson's depiction of ordinary men's struggles against both identifiable evil without and the insidious kind within is rejuvenating enough on its own terms to recall stories about figures from George Bailey to Rudolph, who overcame their personal demons to contribute something vital to the world. If that isn't Christmassy, what is?