A gay love triangle unravels against the backdrop of the Siege of Derry in Andy Hinds' deft play
At the heart of Sea Lavender is a love triangle, but an unusual one. It involves Arthur Cobham, a cobbler, and Harry Thompson, a social arriviste with designs to be 'a man of significance', originally from the same humble village background in Yorkshire.
Both relocate to Derry, and both fall in love with a local aristocrat named Peter. Arthur's relationship with Peter is consummated in a cabin in the woods outside the city. Arthur is married, and shaken by the discovery of his homosexuality. Harry's feelings, meanwhile, are unknown to Peter, and remain unreciprocated.
There are further complications. It is 1690, and the Siege of Derry is happening. Both Harry and Peter are aligned with the Protestant ascendancy, while Arthur is married to Eileen, 'an Irish papist'. His attempts to pay a visit to the dying Peter in the starving city are foiled, with fatal consequences.
Derry-born writer Andy Hinds's play was originally staged in Dublin in the 1990s, with Conleth Hill playing the twin parts of Arthur and Harry. Hinds himself directs this belated UK premiere at The Playhouse in his native city, for the UK City of Culture 2013 celebrations.
Stephen Hagan stars. For his growing retinue of fans, it's the first opportunity to see him act in Northern Ireland since he left ten years ago. Since then he has starred in the punchy BBC drama The Cut, made an acclaimed West End debut, and completed a season with the Royal Shakespeare Company.
On stage at The Playhouse, with a minimum of props to support him, you can see why Hagan is currently so sought-after as a leading actor. His handsomely sculpted features are an obvious attraction.
More importantly, however, he has a naturally fluid control of text, can vary pace without making silences seem awkward, and is able to suggest much with a minimum of facial or bodily movement, a skill no doubt acquired from his film and television experience.
Hagan is equally at home as both Arthur and Harry, each of whom has a 40-minute monologue either side of the interval. Hinds's writing for the two characters is lithe and economical, with a strong line in vivid imagery and, in Arthur's case particularly, a propensity to intense, lyrical yearning.
Both men's love for the aristocratic Peter is forcefully communicated by Hagan, and clearly differentiated – Arthur surprised by joy but conflicted by family commitments, Harry frustrated and embittered by rejection.
Glimpses of the Siege city are deftly woven by Hinds into the writing. The wails and screaming of the entrapped citizens, executed corpses hung from gallows, and rats on sale for sixpence – all feature, etched in impressionistically like detail from a Hogarth engraving.
Remarkable, it seems, that a love story so intensely personal as Arthur's and Harry's should unfold against such a momentous, apparently all-consuming historical backdrop. Remarkable, but true: Sea Lavender reminds us powerfully that the heart will always go on, no matter how loudly the cannonades explode or bullets whistle in the air around it.
Sea Lavender runs in the Playhouse, Derry~Londonderry until October 12.