Venue: Lyric Theatre, Belfast
Dates: 12 May to 10 June 2018
Writer: Brian Friel
Fifty years ago, at the start of his writing career, Brian Friel was already breaking the mould in terms of dramatic experimentation and structural daring. In Lovers: Winners and Losers he took the risky decision to construct two totally unconnected plays under an enigmatic title. At their epicentre are two couples. They may indeed be lovers but it is hard to fathom how either pair could be judged winners. Theirs are tales of loss; they are perennial losers.
The first relationship is a brief, brilliant blaze between teenagers Joe (Thomas Finnegan) and Mag (Ruby Campbell), walking blindly into premature marriage through an accidental pregnancy. Not for the first time in his vast canon of work, Friel manages to put his finger right on the quick of a current issue.
The two meet on a sunny hilltop to study for their exams and plan their future. But while the intellectually ambitious Joe’s attention is wholly concentrated on his books, Mag’s head is filled with mischief and frivolity and wild romantic thoughts. They are a pair not well matched. Their life together does not look promising.
Designer Ciaran Bagnall’s set focuses on the precariousness of their shared existence, perching them perilously high above a glowering lake and stricken trees, beside which, like a pair of soothsayers, sit an unnamed Man (Charlie Bonner) and Woman (Abigail McGibbon), unemotionally narrating in advance the grim details of the ensuing tragedy.
In the second play, Friel switches abruptly to uneasy dark comedy and an older generation. Andy (Bonner) and Hanna (McGibbon) have found love late in life. They are both thoroughly decent human beings, crying out for happiness and companionship. With a steady job as a joiner and his own home, Andy is a good prospect. The door of his comfy little house is open for his new bride to walk in and settle her feet under the table.
But life is complicated for Hanna, who works in the local shirt factory and cares alone for her tyrannical hypochondriac mother (Helena Bereen). Andy may think he is up for dealing with the old woman’s cranky demands once he and Hanna are married but he has another think coming. And he can’t say he hasn’t been warned. Their ingeniously disguised, pathetically clumsy pre-marital sexual fumblings are constantly interrupted by the loud ringing of a bell. It is the old woman, eavesdropping intently from her upstairs bed.
For all their mutual affection and suppressed yearnings, the pattern of their marriage is blighted early on by spite, religious devotion, filial duty and the barely disguised disapproval of a sanctimonious friend Cissy (Carol Moore). Andy’s failed attempt to put one over on his mother-in-law reaps disastrous, irreparable consequences and, from his self-imposed isolation, only a black void of loneliness beckons at the end of a pair of binoculars.
The impact of the title comes crashing in in the final moments, with a momentary shimmering glimpse of lost happiness and what might have been. Winners? Definitely not. So, losers then?
The performances are all faultlessly truthful, with Abigail McGibbon heartbreaking as put-upon, conflicted Hanna, Charlie Bonner dredging resignation from the depths of his soul, and Thomas Finnegan’s facial and physical mobility shoring up a whole gamut of adolescent emotions as the doomed young groom-to-be. Emma Jordan’s meticulous direction, together with Neil Martin’s plaintive cello score – practically an additional, elusive character in its own right – crafts a complete, deeply satisfying theatrical experience.
A shorter version of this review was published by The Stage on 18 May 2018.