The Daylight Atheist

Cremorne Theatre (Melbourne Theatre Company)


Professional production

By Tom Scott

What do you do with the drunken Irishman? You make a play about him, of course, for there are hundreds of glorious clichés inherent in the type, just begging to be exploited.

Comic cliches, yes, but tragic as well, for behind the rollicking exterior often lurks a damaged personality, and it’s not enough to blame it on poverty, religion or a brutalising environment.

The trap for the unwary playwright is to yield to the undeniable charm of the stage Irishman, making us unable to see the brute behind the jovial exterior, and allowing us to forgive him anything because of his magnetic appeal.

Playwright Tom Scott, who uses a character called Dan Moffat as his prototype Irish drunk, only just manages to avoid this trap. The story of Dan Moffat is sad but not tragic, and no amount of guffawing and joking can disguise the fact that he is a selfish brute, humiliating his wife, alienating his son whom he always addresses as Egghead, and not with affection either, and letting down his daughter by getting blind drunk and not turning up to drive her to the school ball which was going to be the best night of her life.

The only person to whom he shows any affection is his Maori mate Jack, who appears through the monologue for that is what this hundred-minute two-act saga basically is as a rather shadowy figure, so that his slow death from cancer doesn’t move us as much as it does Dan, and therefore robs the ending of much of its potential pathos.

So Dan Moffat is in himself a problem, and if it weren’t for the sheer genius of Richard Piper, who brings every nuance in the script alive, and can charm and appal us with the lift of an eyebrow, I don’t think the play would be worth much, as it doesn’t really go anywhere or have anything new to say. We’ve met characters like this before, in print, on stage and on screen, from Ulysses and Juno and the Paycock to Angela’s Ashes and Ballykissangel ,and there doesn’t seem much more to say about the type.

Which is why we can thank God for Richard Piper. His performance is a tour-de-force, an extremely talented actor making an unbearable character almost pitiable. Admitted he has a good script to work with, with some lovely Irishisms “Dingbat (his wife) can get pregnant watching a BBC doco about sperm whales” and a fine cast of characters to play within the monologue, but in lesser hands many of the subtleties would go unnoticed.

Here is an actor why knows exactly what he’s doing, who can exploit every trick in the lexicon, who can shift the mood with the lift of a shoulder or the raising of a lip. From bombast to pathos, from cruelty to wit, from a show of larrikin humour to embarrassing failure, his Dan Moffat transcends the stage Irishman, the “rogue with a brogue”, and becomes a real human being. < BR>
It’s a sublime performance, not least because it keeps us interested in the story of this sad man who left Ireland after a miserable childhood. He was separated from his cheerful crew of poor-but-happy brothers and sisters and forced to live with a widowed aunt who had no children, grew up as a typical rough-and-tumble working class boy in Northern Ireland, moved south where, as a Protestant, he got the rough end of the stick once again, joined the Air Force during World War II, decided to emigrate to New Zealand and, just a month too soon for his own comfort, realised that his girlfriend Dingbat was up the duff.

Lucky old New Zealand (“where do they go when the tide comes in?”) receives them into her unwitting bosom, and they settle down to a drab life in the slums, and you can guess the rest. Not that anything really happens, of course, and there are no serious dark nights of the soul, no epiphanies, no movings-on or deep learning experiences just the gradual decline into an inevitable decay where Dan spends his life confined in a nightmare slum of a room shunned by the rest of his family.

It’s a situation that occurs all over the world, I’m sure, and I wonder whether the play would have succeeded if it had been about anyone else but an Irishman. For we know the type so well, have grown up surrounded by people of Irish descent, have been influenced so much by their culture and their history, that it’s a kind of home-coming for us, and Dan is, de facto, a part of the colonial family. But if he were a Serb, or an Iranian, or a Argentinean, would we be so tolerant of his violence, his drinking, his selfishness and cruelty?

I had serious concerns with this play, but I’m glad I saw it, if only for the brilliance of Richard Piper’s performance. It didn’t really move me on a human level, but as a theatrical experience, it ranks as one of the best bravura performances I’ve ever seen.

Directed by Peter Evans

Designer: Christina Smith

Lighting: Efterpi Soropos

Playing 13 September–15 October 2005.

Running time: 2 hours five minutes including 20 minute interval

— Alison Cotes
(Performance seen: Wed 14th September 2005)