A respected actor/playwright confided his agreement with my recent negative comments about monologue-centred plays, adding that the technique was relatively easy for writers, but hard work for actors and audiences actors because of their long uninterrupted spiels, and audiences because they have to mutely take the part of the imagined adversary/actor. So it was with some misgivings that I approached a play in which three actors tell the story entirely through monologues. Indeed I cravenly considered flicking it to one of my hard-pressed stable of reviewers.
In the event, I’m glad I didn’t. Molly Sweeney turns out to be quite an absorbing evening, featuring a lively script, beautiful effects and brilliant acting.
The gentle and bewildered Molly is captured quite beautifully by Helen Howard, who takes us on Molly’s strange journey, from her touching childhood memories of her father’s teaching her about flowers, through her manipulation by her pompous eye surgeon and irrepressible husband through to her final tragedy. David Clendinning effectively portrays the surgeon, Mr Rice, driven by his professional memories and feelings of what might have been, while Iain Gardiner is a delight as the well-intentioned but totally irresponsible do-gooder Frank who marries Molly and sets out to solve her “problem”.
The three actors spend the entire performance sitting on chairs facing the audience. (As arts journalist Brett Debritz quipped, “the blocking must have been easy”.) A shimmering blue background and the sound of surf evoke Molly’s love of swimming. Some deft fiddle work helps with reminiscences of Irish partying.
Director Jennifer Flowers has brought these elements together well, but obviously, none of it could have worked without Brian Friel’s clever script (which would also be ideal as a radio play). His ear for language is evident, and his “gift of the gab” is pronounced, even for an Irishman. Moreover, he uses techniques to make the monologue style more bearable, such as having the actors break into dialogues with themselves, imitating the other characters.
The overall effect of the play is one of sadness at the harm wrought by well-intentioned people’s attempts to define and solve the problems of others. Frank’s cheerful little story about his and his mate’s futile attempt to save a pair of badgers is a powerful image for the way Molly is treated, which lingers in memory long after this touching play has ended.