The Visiting Hour, Gate Theater, Dublin ★★★ ☆☆
Is time almost over for the Covid piece – or, at least, the variant (such as James Graham’s Bubble or David Hare’s Beat the Devil) that speaks to the direct experience of 2020-2021?
The Gate Theater, Dublin has just launched its first live broadcast, with – in a major twist – the world premiere of a new play by Frank McGuinness, starring Stephen Rea. It takes place in a nursing home and captures some of the agony of a prolonged separation that has particularly afflicted this sheltered sector of society. A confused old man (Rea) has an hour-long non-tactile meeting with the woman (Judith Roddy) who, although her confirmation is only choppy, identifies as his daughter.
There is a digital screen between us and the actors, sitting on stage in an empty room – and a physical screen between them too, initially riveted by two stagehands. What cause divides the couple in this way? The anonymous woman – a geography teacher – explains it clearly: “The very air we breathe is the new killer. Except, of course, that it’s not that new to us, and with the rollout of the vaccine came the prospect that nursing homes might stop being alone and the hugs might return.
So, on some level, The Visiting Hour makes it seem like, even in its truncated three-day period, it goes under the thread, clinging to the actual experience. But McGuinness, 67, is too subtle a writer to be left hanging in the news. Next year marks the 30th anniversary of Someone Who Will Watch Over Me, his response to the Beirut hostage crisis, which – starring Rea as a captive Irish journalist – traveled to the West End and Broadway. Just as this work went beyond mere literalism, exploring the psychology of a trio bound by fate, McGuinness touches on something existential here.
When the usual connection points are broken, by medical diktat and a fractured mind, an enigma arises: how to communicate, how to establish relationships? As with Oscar-nominated Florian Zeller’s portrait of dementia, The Father, this piece never allows us to stand too comfortably outside the family melee and carefully piece things together. To what extent is what is said – as our couple passes the time with rambling and whimsical chatter – is it true? How fake is it in a playful way and who to trust memories?
Rea has a brilliantly casual way of invoking both searing candor and evasive discredit, as he sits slumped and mouth grumpy, his face partly obscured by a clownish overhang of curly hair. This shipwrecked character claims he has already finished second in the Eurovision Song Contest (with an anecdote about TV presenter Katie Boyle); he sings weakly, he makes terrible knock knock jokes; but is it all slipped on, like the tuxedo, the frilly shirt and the bow tie he wore for the occasion?
For his part, an attentive and restrained Roddy (seated on a bench, facing his armchair) shows us a conscientious weekly visitor pleasing and directing the old man. “That never happened, father,” she says of Eurovision. The couple appear to make fleeting contact in a fantastically shared description of the departure of their missing wife and mother (swept away by the golden eagle) and an affectionate turn of Irish folk song The Waxies’ Dargle. Then distance and estrangement resume.
Are we tired of this posed riddle, sick like all of us of seeing empty auditoriums and makeshift digital trinkets? Yes, but it hooks you up and holds you back somehow. Visiting Hour is a work of its pandemic moment, but even after the briefest of online errands, and beyond, after the drop in Covid, it could still justify an extra life.
Until Saturday 24. Info: gatetheatre.ie