Thursday, 5 December 2013

THEATRE REVIEW: A Particle Of Dread

Field Day Theatre Company return to Derry-Londonderry with a patchwork thunderbolt of human fear and emotionalism

Easy though it might be to pigeonhole Sam Shepard's A Particle Of Dread as schlocky, Hitchcockian murder mystery coated with high art pretence, it would also be wrong. In many ways maddening, but in many other ways unparalleled as a theatrical achievement in this Year Of Culture, Field Day Theatre Company's return to the Derry-Londonderry stage is an almost meticulously acted, costumed, directed and written production. It eschews cheap thrills and easy answers in favour of cryptic, sometimes secretive, yet consistently curious characterisation. This beautifully woven and creepily horrifying modern day take on Oedipus will not be easily forgotten.

A Particle Of Dread began life as a collection of scenes tossed together in no particular order, and, judging by the still seemingly "unfinished" end product, feels not too dissimilar on stage, like a fractured, untypical framework. Not surprisingly, Shepard does not believe in "sense" and "formula", even if everyone seems to want it: "Chaos is a much better instigator, because we live in (it)."

Nor does Shepard believe in "adaptation"; his aim is more abstract, to bring out the heart in the Oedipus story, rather than the shockingly simplistic plot. In other words, he sets out to create a riff on "the feelings, not the form – the instincts and all the incredible things that are called up." With the notable aid of director Nancy Meckler, designer Frank Conway, costumer Lorna Marie Mugan and highly-regarded musician Neil Martin, Shepard and the talented Field Day cast have done just that; the end result is like a patchwork thunderbolt of human fear and emotionalism in the guise of an unsophisticated plot. Call it "collaborative chaotic collective".

When reviewing Stephen Rea's performance in Clare Dwyer Hogg's Farewell last year, I described Field Day co-founder Rea as "an astonishingly subtle and forceful actor, capable of dissolving into any role." We are fascinated by Rea regardless of the incomprehensibility or reprehensibility in his characters. And while he tosses some subtlety out the window in his portrayal of the modern day Oedipus, Otto – a man who kills his father and mother without fully realising what he is doing – the vigorousness of his acting delicately influences every single character around him.

For the most part, the characters are moody and withdrawn, their rather cryptic dialogue laced with bitterness. The only exceptions, as such, are the expospeak investigations of Iarla McGowan's Harrington and Caolán Byrne's Randolph, the former resembling a comical Rick Grimes. Thankfully, any fears that this will become The Un-Walking Dead are unfounded; the whodunnits and whydunnits of this murder massacre are almost rendered irrelevant by the style of the production and the quality of performance.

It really is impossible not to single out the stylisation. Frank Conway's white tiled, sterile set, with human entrails in one corner and the haunting musical interludes of Neil Martin in another, feels more real and three-dimensional than any theatrical set I have seen this year. And the actors only enhance the feelings. Although it is apparent when watching A Particle Of Dread that the true dread the characters feel is not for one another, but rather themselves.

Brid Brennan's Jocelyn skilfully alternates between faux motherly concern and blunt psychology ("The truth will set you free? The truth is for tearing us all apart!") without blinking an eye. Frank Laverty is solid as Larry, whose high class exterior conceals far more than it reveals, and Lloyd Hutchinson is skin-crawlingly creepy in his multiple roles, particularly the travelling seer who emphasises the most unusual words so untrustworthily.

Towering above all, however, is Judith Roddy as Annalee, the young mother who is especially keen to just get to the bottom of things following the incestuous rape of her own mother by her father. It is exceptionally intriguing how she tries to deal with every issue; she claims that "rage" was found in her father's blood, and "terror" in her mother's. But since when were blood test results "moody"? It's apparent Annalee has been told this to fulfil a human weakness; the longing for formulaic, easy answers even if there aren't any. Sam Shepard has clearly written his own views into the play here.

And what of the moment where Annalee thinks it is best to kill her baby son so that he never remembers the experience that has scarred her, but not necessarily him? Perhaps it is understandable why she would take such a stance, but then Hutchinson's blind traveller highlights her paranoia ("He could become anything. Maybe it's you who can't deal with it"), and the chaos inherent in people's lives is right there, in our faces.

I sense, despite Shepard's attempts to stray from "formula", or maybe because of them, threads of a popular Hollywood narrative emerge here; that of the "interconnected lost souls". As one character says, "What's in it for us, all this (monologuing)?" Speaking out thoughts, feelings, hopes and fears may heal oneself, but only superficially, only to a point. Actions speak louder than words; and rarely has that indelible moral been put to better use than in this particular Oedipus complex.

A Particle Of Dread runs at Derry-Londonderry's Playhouse Theatre until Saturday December 7. For more information, click here.