Tales of Ballycumber

I once heard about a man who, minutes from planning to end his life, went into a shop to get whatever last-second things the destitute buy; pen and pad, a Bounty bar, twenty Major - items of distraction. He was delayed by the proprietor who engaged him in conversation. On exiting into the bright of day, he suddenly changed his mind. What was it, he was asked years later, had the shopkeeper said to him that saved him? “I don't know, something kind” he said.The opposite occurs in Tales of Ballycumber. Shortly after a seemingly light conversation with his friend Nicholas Farquhar, young Evans (Aaron Monaghan) puts a bullet in his own belly. His father asks the dying boy why. “I don't know” says Evans. But he does leave a mystifying note. It reads 'Nicholas Farquhar knows'. And this is the thrust of the play; what does the note mean? Nicholas (Stephen Rea) doesn't know, the boy who took his own life doesn't know, the audience, as witness to their final conversation, doesn't know. So what is playwright Sebastian Barry up to here? To get to that we need to look at this key event in the play. Why did Evans write 'Nicholas Farquhar knows' when Nicholas doesn't and Evans admits not to know why he took his own life? Did Nicholas's talk too much of death in their chat? Of Ballycumber's past when the village was wiped out by TB “we were too numerous, close, and local”? His romanticizing of a suicide which Elvis Presley (who took his own life) eulogised in 'Heartbreak Hotel' "I walk a lonely Road"? The mention of Mr. Reynard - the common fox but also the title of a sectarian children's story? Unlikely. As a device, the note puts Nicholas on a dramatic journey to find out what the note means. There's already hinting of inappropriate behaviour by his sister and Evans' father has threatened to kill him. Nicholas must break the code which even Evans could not articulate.So why did the character Evans do this? We find that answer in a story which Evans relates posthumously near the end of the play. In his telling, he is taking a walk he took through a Ballycumber of another time. Evans is searching for the girl he's smitten with, the girl with the 'greeny-blue eyes'. When he finds her, she takes his hand with “the warmth of one who knew me as a follower”. But then, two men arrive and push him to the ground, driving a spike into his shoulder and putting a shears down his pants to castrate him. An old woman shouts “did you think I'd let you do that?”. One of the men then shoots him in the stomach. The metaphor of emasculation and the restraining spike, in the story told, tells us of the emotional turmoil and repression that Evans was experiencing and the effect of the talk with Nicholas. This causes our minds to race back to the beginning of the play, when Evans was alive. That chat in the opening of the play which seemed light and easy, has now become fringed with darkness. Protestant Evans had talked about his love for local and catholic Patsy“in this lovely blue dress, you would hardly dare to look at her”. Nicholas' reply? “Now you couldn't be trusting a girl like that to look after you”, meaning you can't trust a catholic. When Evans pressed the issue “The thing is, Nicholas, I love that girl” with a reply “But you never danced with her”, meaning, how can you know if you love her, and also, if she loves you? Aha! Now we have a clear connection between the seemingly idle chat at the beginning and its devastating consequences as told in story by Evans at the end. But is that really enough to send a boy to suicide? The answer is no. It is not just what Nicholas said, it is what was omitted that failed to check Evans' path to destruction. Instead of filling Evans with tales and the passive aggressive attack on Patsy (perhaps less visits to Nicholas?) he should have spoken to what he could, in his heart, see. His self-realization at the end supports that. “When my friend comes to me, with his heart heavy, and well I knew” he says. He knew, yes he knew his friend was in trouble, as he talked on and on himself. Why did he not acknowledge to himself what was going on when he could have actually done something? He couldn't because he was trapped in his own faulty narrative; compulsed, confused, in a loop. This is ponderous stuff indeed. And to give it shape is a fine cast. Mr. Monaghan does a superb job of portraying a young, troubled Evans without a hint of stereotype; the fiddling with his fingers under his arm, a leg outstretched, the gulping of his tea and the complete absorption of everything that Nicholas says. His relationship with Nicholas is both credible and endearing. Mr Rea is always a strong presence on stage and this production is no different. However, his measured Nicholas is more weightier and halting than he should be at times, such as when relaying the lighter stories. Liam Carney walks like a dead man with a shriveled soul with great effect in the role of Andrew. Lisa Hogg delicately etches the little girl into frame whom Nicholas allows to grow into a woman. Nicholas' sister as Derbhle Crotty strikes the right note as the person to reflect the realities that Nicholas avoids.But what is Mr. Barry doing in this play? With force, he attacks the unilluminated corners of our lives and the empty narrative we create for ourselves through story, the mask of reality. There's talk and tales, chat and tea, and local bits and bobs of history. Everyone who walks on stage has a story about something else, someone else but fails to see the dark spots gathering in the shadows and in themselves. Mr. Barry's view of this, through a tragic tale of a suicide and its tethered curse on the living, is “the stupid, blunted, wretched instrument is this man”. A dark view, you think, as you examine the image of the dead crow on the programme. While we tell stories, changing them, reframing them – over and over in a loop, life moves in a straight line to its ultimate at a terrifying speed leaving opportunity, possibilities in a gloomy wake – what could have been, and we, slack-jawed with our morbid fascination with the blur, are haunted by a dimmed reality. One of the possibilities in the play is, what could have been said to Evans to curb his lust for death? Unlike the man I told you of, whose life was saved by a shopkeeper's kind word, Evans' life was not saved, words did not get through the incessant chatter, the toothless talk and the dimmed reality – that narrative of Nicholas. The survivors left behind are now doomed to range in a bitter purgatory of wonder. Wasn't there something they could have done?Yes, there was something that could have been done, and that is what Nicholas discovers from the inscrutable note. Remember, this story is about Nicholas Farquhar, Evans is there as a catalyst. As protagonist, he gets a journey to self-revelation, from ignorance to knowledge through understanding his own badly devised narrative; “when the old woman dies, the son should know it, and not be believing otherwise, and hold his wife in the dark of night... it should be all pristine and proper...I would know what to say to him (Evans) and not be offering only the tales of Ballycumber, but to have something fresh and true to say to him”. His discovery of his own failed narrative, the unexamined choice of his life as a bachelor, all his own history had propelled him to this very point of his life where a fatal error would be made. But yet, there is always a choice. Yes, he could have done something for the boy. Yes, as the note says, 'Nicholas Farquhar knows.'Nicholas does get something for his journey, for his plunge into darkness. He dispels the ghosts that he created and talks to; a little girl (lovely portrayal by Lisa Hogg) who died long ago, and the mother he believes on and off to be dead, by putting the same gun that Evans' took his life with and pointing it inwards to his own stomach. In this simulating action, he makes a choice and it is life. He puts the gun away. And thus, with this end, Mr. Barry swings the dark themes into light.As it seems, the play sets out to show the dangers of the empty narrative we create to occlude the reality around us, but does it achieve that dramatically? It is a subtle and poignant work, profound, even, but the use of the divers stories that scatter through the play causes the drama to buckle underneath. The opening with Nicholas and Evans has many, seemingly unrelated, stories about jackdaws, the Kennedy's, Elvis Presley, dogs, TB etc which go on for more than thirty minutes. There's no conflict, tension or surprise during this. OK, I did not know that Elvis is descended from someone in Hackettstown, but its a long time for an audience to maintain concentration without a powerful pay-off, a reversal, something. Yes, I know, it's the point. All these stories are about not dealing with what's going on in front of us, but we get the point, early and often. When Evans' father comes to tell Nicholas about the tragedy, for example, he gives a prelude with a story about the boy going to a dance when he was thirteen. The stories develop such a bulk, that necessary dramatic elements sink underneath them. There are also a couple of plot issues, which take us out of the play. When Evans shoots himself, he is not taken to hospital. Sorry, but calling the doctor is not enough. Call 112/999 and even if you are in the boonies, they'll still send an ambulance or helicopter. He lingers in this state for a couple of days at least. It's just not credible. Evans also comes out of his coma (diagnosed by his father), lying in his room with his bleeding bowels, he tells his da how sorry he is, while people sit out in the kitchen – eating beef sandwiches! On another point, the stated idea in the programme of "buried history that propels both men towards a desperate and inevitable climax" is something I did not see in the play. Perhaps I'm wrong, but the statement seems to suggest the history of Ballycumber rather than Nicholas'. If that is what is intended, that a possible dark and ancient history of Ballycumber could drive a man to suicide in modern times, then it is too tenuous a connection to make, based on what is played out before us. There is no strong sense that this is something that does happen or could happen. Nicholas, however, does have a past that does inform the present dangerous moments. Direction (by David Leveaux) could have cleared up some of the obvious issues in this production, with pace and with clarifying the revelation at the end. Tales of Ballycumber is a prayer of a play, it casts light on the shadows, despite its subject, and offers in its final moments, hope. However, it comes across as a creative product sheathed in an intellectual imagination and as such has powerful themes but not the drama to sustain them sufficiently. I would love to see it again on a small stage, where the stories would have a better chance of standing straight with the energy of up-close theatre. This effect is attempted, with the house set in a field of daffodils restricting the action to a small area. The daffodils are one of the many eloquent symbols in the play, showing the island Nicholas has created for himself. That set, by Mike Britton, is beautiful; a field of daffodils that turn up at the far corners and at the front; the teeth marks of a fork, as if Nicholas's island is going through space, free and drifting towards his own destiny.

The Blurb

Setting out in search of advice, young Evans Stafford calls to the home of a friend and strong-minded traditionalist, Nicholas Farquhar. The following morning the local boy is found bloodied, note in hand. What is said during their brief encounter to compel him to this violent act? As Farquhar struggles to come to terms with his actions and their devastating consequences, he discovers that his memories and words are governed by a force greater than himself – a buried history that propels both men towards a desperate and inevitable climax. This world premiere from twice Booker-nominated and winner of the 2008 Costa Book of the Year award, Sebastian Barry, is a startling portrayal of two unlikely companions united beyond their own comprehension, both haunted by the plague of solitude and the Tales of Ballycumber.