The Devil arrives in a Dublin drinking hole in Conor McPherson's play about men, alcohol and the redemptive power of friendship
The most striking thing about Conor McPherson's strange 2006 play, The Seafarer – a co-production with Perth Theatre which is currently being staged in Belfast's Lyric Theatre – is the absence of women.
This is unquestionably male territory: set in the dark, decrepit bowels of a Dublin house, owned by Richard, a cantankerous (and blind) old boozer, it's the story of Sharkey, Richard's younger brother, a man caught between the chaos of alcoholism and the hope of a better way of life.
Other characters come and go: Ivan, a genial, shambling hulk of a man, stumbling around confusedly because his glasses went missing in his latest drinking session; and Nicky, a defiantly cocky Dublin wide-boy, preening in his cod-Versace jacket, even while his too-short trousers ride up over awful white sports socks in a way that can only be described as emasculating.
And Gary McCann's extraordinary set – a disintegrating, spartan dungeon of a space, right down to the wonky pictures and shredding, mismatched lino – provides a rich context for this portrait of male degeneration.
But while women are not physically present, they are continually invoked, spoken of with fear, reverence, trepidation. Both Nicky and Ivan, in particular, are agonised at the thought of the bollocking they will get from their partners when they return, shame-faced and broke, from their latest sozzled adventures.
Richard, without the comfort or tribulation of a wife of his own, comes up with increasingly bizarre plans to smooth over the strained marital relations of his friends, including the suggestion that Ivan return home in the custody of a monk from the nearby priory.
This production excels in the blunt, awkward interactions between men – the shouts, the jeers, the silences – through which affection, fellow-feeling and even love is communicated. Ciaran McIntyre, as Richard, is superb: noisy, querulous, self-pitying, yet with a residual thoughtfulness and sensitivity that allows him to appreciate the joy of music, or the intricate godly design of such a lowly creature as a bluebottle.
The troublesome winos who hang around the alleyway at the back of his house are Richard's declared enemies and, despite his blindness and decrepitude, he is forever leading joyous sorties against them.
Sharkey (Louis Dempsey), meanwhile, is a man all at sea: struggling to be good, to renounce drink, to look after his brother, but continually beset by temptations. There seems little incentive to do the right thing, given the paucity and joyless emptiness of Sharkey's life. Yet he tries.
And then the Devil arrives, in the form of a dapper stranger, Mr Lockhart, announcing – to suitably chilling effect – 'I want your soul, Sharkey'. It seems that Sharkey will be forced to atone for past iniquities by gambling, that very night, for his own life.
This curious supernatural intervention, appearing in the midst of such homely, everyday dysfunctionality, could have been an absurd moment, farcical even. Director Rachel O'Riordan takes a still greater risk by laying on the Gothic melodrama: Mr Lockhart's arrival is accompanied by a howling, bone-rattling wind.
Improbably, though, it all works, and Benny Young, as Lockhart, is a convincingly damaged devil, a real fallen angel: ostensibly self-assured yet so tortured by the absence of love in his existence that actually he envies this band of male degenerates. At least they are alive, at least they have each other.
This is a play about faith, hope and the possibility of redemption – of both the divine and the human variety. It's also about the existence of love and joy in the most unexpected of places, and the ability of that joy to triumph, even in a ramshackly, imperfect way, over evil.
The Seafarer runs in the Lyric Theatre, Belfast until March 23.