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A CurtainUp LondonLondon Review
by Lizzie Loveridge

We are only an upright ape standing on our hind legs trying to reach the higher apples. You can't expect too much of such a creature.  
-- Cornelius

Patrick Malahide & Phelim Drew
(Photo: John Haynes)
A new play from Sebastian Barry is always welcome and the National Theatre's smallest space, the Cottesloe is hosting his latest , Hinterland, a production from Out of Joint and the Abbey Theatre Dublin. Based on a fictional, retired Irish politician, "the Father of his nation", Johnny Silvester (Patrick Malahide), Dublin audiences had no difficulty in recognising ex Premier Charles J. Haughey. Apparently, not only were there biographical similarities but Malahide actually impersonates some of Haughey's mannerisms. As this reviewer is ignorant with regard to Irish politics, I appreciated Hinterland as a political play about a powerful man whose world is falling apart, rather than a portrait of Haughey.

The hinterland of the title is the area of country outside Dublin where Silvester lives in his large, and ill-gotten, Georgian manor house. It is also a no man's land, where Silvester finds himself and it alludes to his illness, a cancer which he is reluctant to face. In his retirement, he is beset by scandal. He is facing investigations as to irregularities in the payment of subsidies and expenses and the payment of taxes. Connie (Anna Healy), his mistress of many years, has published a book detailing their affair much to the embarrassment of Silvester's family. His son, Jack (Phelim Drew) is mentally ill and his wife Daisy (Dearbhla Molloy) blames Johnny and cannot forgive him his long standing affair. In the course of the play Silvester is visited by the spectre of Cornelius (Kieran Aherne), a dead colleague, like Banquo's ghost, whom he has betrayed. He isalso interviewed by a student, Aisling (Lucianne McEvoy) who tells him what his critics are saying about him.

Barry lets Silvester recall his life in detail , from childhood poverty to the guilt he felt about the death of his one year old sister from scarlet fever when as a contagious five year old he was forbidden to see her, but did so, to his remorse at his dysfunctional marriage. Barry's writing is so natural. There are moments of wit but the most powerful are those of sheer regret. Even after Silvester agrees to try to be kinder to his wife, Connie arrives uninvited and Daisy finds her hiding in the archive cupboard, a fleshed out skeleton. The resulting picture is not of an evil man but an ambitious and maybe a greedy one, who now is remorseful. It is a gentle and subtle play.

Patrick Malahide as Silvester rages at the doctors, shifts uncomfortably at the student's list of his shortcomings, squirms when confronted by his wife but also hugs his suicidal son in a moment of great compassion. We see him relaxing in cardigan and slippers and then impressively dressed like a statesman in a designer suit for the interview. But of course fine feathers do not make fine birds. The final speech Silvester makes, "an ends justifies the means", is his most powerful and Malahide delivers a flawless performance. I liked too James Hayes' Stephen, the increasingly insubordinate and indiscreet manservant and Dearbhla Molloy's long suffering wife and over protective mother.

The last play I saw directed by Max Stafford-Clark was the political comedy satire Feelgood which featured a thinly disguised Peter Mandelson. In Hinterland too, he places his characters with the kind of good direction which is almost imperceptible. The box set recreates the spacious Georgian house with its walls covered in floor to ceiling art or bookshelves. In one corner is the room where the state papers are archived and from here emerges Cornelius' ghost where he is hidden with the other unpleasant secrets. The final view is of the isolated figure of Johnny Silvester. Above the desk, a painting is removed to reveal a hole in the wall, a reference to both the unfriendly gaze of the press and the vulnerability of his defences.

Links to Sebastian Barry's Plays
Our Lady of Sligo
Boss Grady's Boys

Written by Sebastian Barry
Directed by Max Stafford-Clark

Starring: Patrick Malahide
With: James Hayes, Kieran Ahern, Dearbhla Molloy, Phelim Drew, Lucianne McEvoy, Anna Healy.
Design: Es Devlin
Lighting Design: Johanna Town
Sound design: Paul Arditti
Music: Paddy Cuneen
Running time: Two hours thirty minutes with one interval
Box Office: 020 7452 3000
Booking to 1st June 2002, then on tour to Oxford and Liverpool
Reviewed by Lizzie Loveridge based on 5th March 2002 performance at the Cottesloe, National Theatre, South Bank, London SE1
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