The BBC has recently launched Lights Up, a festival of theatre that stretches across TV, radio, iPlayer and the Sounds app. With 18 new productions featured there is plenty to choose from and I envisage making a number of return visits. My first choice unconsciously marked the anniversary of one of the earliest successes I watched twelve months ago; it was exactly one year to the day since I saw David Ireland’s stunning play Cyprus Avenue. His latest piece, Sadie, has much in common with the earlier work but whereas this was a record of a show performed for a packed Royal Court theatre, Sadie is played out in the Lyric, Belfast to an empty auditorium.
Abigail McGibbon plays the titular character, a Belfast woman in her early 50s who cleans for a living and is possessed of a ferocious intelligence. She is in a relationship with a man 25 years her junior, Joao (Santino Smith) whose family is of Portuguese origin – cue the inevitable Brexit references. During an argument Sadie slaps Joao; he considers this abuse, she doesn’t. They both consult a therapist, Mairead (Andrea Irvine), who starts to uncover Sadie’s past and it is a very uncomfortable one. During the process the audience’s sympathy will inevitably shift towards and away from the protagonist as the deliberately provocative writer skilfully manipulates the drama which in the last third takes a shocking turn involving pain and bloodshed amidst the horrific revelations.
On reflection we should be wary of Sadie’s testimony right from the start. When we first see her, she is passing the time of day with her uncle Red (Patrick Jenkins) – nicknamed for his Communist leanings. Nothing wrong with that except that it turns out he is dead. She also interacts with her ex-husband Clark (David Pearse); he has also departed this life. So, we find ourselves asking whether these are true representations of these men or a constructed version from Sadie’s memory. And if we can’t rely on this version of events, what credence can be given to current circumstances and her relationship with Joao – indeed, it is more than possible that he is yet another projection from the troubled mind of the central character. As in Cyprus Avenue, Ireland’s drama becomes a nightmarish farce which, although it takes place in a domestic setting, has resonances way beyond its immediate surroundings.
The cast are uniformly excellent but McGibbon (onstage throughout) excels at playing someone who is both ordinary and extraordinary simultaneously. There is a genuine sense of bewilderment in her portrayal of a woman who is increasingly at odds with the way society is developing – she has little truck with “woke” culture and despises the younger generation’s insistence on victimhood. She’s just about coping with lockdown but fares less well with the political disease of sectarianism which still riddles the society in which she lives – the figures of the two dead men embody the sharp divide in which she is caught. Jenkins’s performance also captivates and blindsides as the truth about the man is hidden under a carapace of apparent tenderness and sentimental Gaelic songs. Award winning actor Conleth Hill directs with a sure touch , particularly in the last twenty minutes where it becomes impossible to stop watching as inevitable tragedy unfolds.
Though perhaps not quite in the same league as Cyprus Avenue this is an impressive piece of work with sharp writing and a great central performance at its heart. Lights Up has performed a valuable service in rescuing this piece of theatre from oblivion and it is to be hoped that the other 17 pieces in the season can reach similar heights; I’ll be back at regular intervals to find out.