By Brian Friel
Theatre St. Thomas
20 February 1998
Brian Friel's Lovers is a script which takes an extremely simple story and by embedding it in a frame makes it dramatic and resonant.
The story, in classical terms, is simply pathetic: by that I mean it's simply something bad that happens to two people -- and we feel sorry for them, and about what happened. Mag and Joe are two 17 year olds, about to do their final exams in a school in Northern Ireland, who are going to be married because she's pregnant, who have lots of potential, and who die in an entirely untragic boating accident.
I say "untragic" because that's the issue: the newspapers would call their untimely death "tragic," but it's not: it's simply seriously unfortunate, and really, really sad. There's nothing about it that's tragic; their death doesn't have anything to do with their lives, it's just an accident, and the meaning of it, or our understanding of it, doesn't go much beyond Gloucester's line in King Lear (which, in fact, Mag actually quotes, as she's studying her English Literature): "Like flies to wanton boys are we to the gods; they kill us for their sport." I'm not sure Friel actually solves the problem posed by the fact that Joe and Mag's death is just an arbitrary accident, but he does find ways to make the short play gripping, involving, and memorable, if not exactly meaningful.
The main way he does this is by framing the two lovers in a spoken narrative. In his script, it's shared between an unidentified man and woman (this production divides it among four speakers), who speak, in a matter-of-fact voice, an account of the events centered on the day we're watching the two principals enact. What we see, then, is a relatively small, raked acting area, with a flat spot at the top of the rake, and four narrators seated on either side of the structure (which, we come to see, represents a hill over the town of Ballymore). They speak, and intermittently, on the "hill," Mag and Joe converse.
The main dramatic element here is the contrast between the two characters -- live, troubled, resilient, intelligent and (of course) articulate -- and the flat, clinical narrative of their deaths -- it sounds like a coroner's report -- which envelopes them. Even before we know that it's their deaths being described, the contrast between the two linguistic registers or styles makes us realize that we're being asked to see the lovers from two perspectives simultaneously, and that one of them is past tense, official, appraising, distant. There is, we know, some reason this discourse about "Margaret Mary Enright" and "Joseph Michael Brennan" is being uttered in this cold and institutional way.
In this production the highlights (as they would have to be) are Karla O'Regan's astonishingly vibrant, flighty, erratic, articulate, and overwhelmingly cute Mag, and Jeff Richardson's stolid, patient, dedicated and fundamentally decent Joe. Both are solid, disciplined, and exciting performances. I particularly liked O'Regan's creation of Mag's face, flashing from dimpled smiles to petulant rage and back in an instant, and her invariably sensitive readings of lines. Her careening from anger at things like Joe's attack on her parents, or -- especially -- his charge that she's trapped him into marriage, and back into coquettish, charming flirtatiousness were convincingly violent and entirely consistent with the character of Mag, for whom, over the hour and a quarter of the play, we develop a genuine affection.
Richardson's Joe is a good foil for Mag, desperately trying to study his maths as she rattles on about her fantasies of their life together, exploding convincingly as her chatter finally gets to him, and insinuating himself back into her smile by mocking villagers and teachers.
If I found their physical byplay less than convincing (at the outset, she surprises him on the hill by sneaking up behind him, and while the sneaking was convincing, the surprise wasn't; and as they mimed shooting villagers and teachers down in with their cowboy six-shooters, I wasn't exactly sure they'd worked the choreography out very well), I found their emotional relationship rich, finely tuned, and warm.
The four narrators were all good speakers of lines, and made their lines make sense. The one with the best projection, and the most confidence in what she was saying, was Katie MacLaurin. In fact, she was the only person on stage who I thought never had any problems with projection. Even in the forgiving space of the black box, I regularly lost phrases, sometimes whole sentences, from three of the narrators, and even from O'Regan and Richardson (particularly when Ilkay Silk's imaginative blocking had them facing into the back of the box).
I was surprised -- and, in the end, pleased -- that no more was made of the fact that the play is set in Northern Ireland. No actors tried for Irish accents (any further than anyone who's spent time in the Maritimes is likely to know how some of the idioms ought to sound). It seems to me this is a wise choice, because as soon as the opening narrator told us the play was set in County Tyrone I expected that the lovers would be Protestant and Catholic and the play would really be about prejudice. Perhaps, in some ways, it is, but it isn't about that crude kind of prejudice, and doesn't allow us to dismiss it as something that happens "over there where people are crazy."
Because of the solid performances of the six actors (and the very effective
opening and closing music and sensitive lighting), the sense of a net closing
around these attractive people -- they're extremely alive, we see, but
at the same time we know they're dead -- drives the audience to care about
them and their fate. If at the end, it doesn't all amount to very much,
we don't care: when Mag and Joe run off to steal the boat and explore the
islands, we've come to care about them.