Roddy Doyle: The Snapper, Gate Theatre Dublin (Director: Róisín McBrinn)
By Sascha Krieger
Sometimes, books have a lasting impact on an entire society. Roddy Doyle’s famed and beloved „Barrytown trilogy“ is among those, a defining moment of Dublin identity, a Dublin that is urban, modern, decidedly working class. The quirky, lovable characters, the torching one-liners, the equal love of life and family and expletives helped shape the identity of not just the capital city but the entire country away from the grip of the past, the demons of the church state, the backwards politics of agrarianism and a neutrality that was decidedly anti-British. Sure, the working-class Dublin depicted left out its darkest parts, poverty, the drug epidemic, the trauma of unemployment, violence and crime, the lingering repression of an overpowering church that seemed to have missed the love part of the Christian message. Things are a little harmless, a little cozy and very much optimistic. The books celebrate the vibrancy, the stubborn lust for life at the lower end of the social spectrum, while not giving a sociologically accurate portrait of this part of society. They’re about spirit, not social criticism: Hardly any books could be further from the Ireland of Frank McCabe’s Angelas’s Ashes.
For her inaugural season at the Gate’s director, English theatre maker Selina Cartwell, asked Doyle to adapt The Snapper, the middle part of the trilogy, an all-time favourite both as a novel and Stephen Frears‘ film, for the stage, which the author happily did. The story of the Rabbitte family thrown into turmoil when 20-year-old Sharon, the family’s oldest child, gets pregnant. In the play, Doyle puts her at the centre, probably a more 2010s move than one belonging into the 1980 (the pre-abortion, pre-contraception and pre-divorce era in recent Irish history). So does director Róisín McBrinn. The first words spoken are Sharon’s „I am pregnant“, hurled right at the audience. Her voice is the first we hear, not the patriarch’s as it was in the novel. Just before we saw the drab semi-transparent curtain depicting gray house fronts go up and, to the sound of Madness‘ „Our House“ direct the glance at an eclectic stage arrangement, a patchwork of pop star posters, wall paper and sidewalk patterns, collected into a quilt-like mosaic, a visual abundance of life, a life not ordered, but chaotic, part forced, part willful (stage design: Paul Wills). Sets are created by rolling mini-stages into the foreground, converting the theatre space into a living room, a bedroom, a kitchen or a pub. The private invades the public, the ordered becomes confused.
It is a fine backdrop for a fast-paced and lively trip into a family blown apart, yet keeping together, a life that replies with humour and good.willed cursing when things are about to go bad. Infused by snippets of popular 1980s pop music, the play is, for the most part, a breathless ride, a restless sequence of coping, a hilarious exercise of laughing fate in the face. Which is its strength and its problem. While it keeps the optimistic, life-affirming pace and humour and atmosphere of novel and film it struggles with its darker parts. Ghost-like miniature nightmares thrown in between the scenes feel foreign, the more serious conversations take some time to lose any trace of staleness. The focus is clearly on the jokes, the wit, the biting assault of drabness and worries and the threat of poverty. This works well because the cast is up to the task: Hazel Clifford is a low-voiced, both rowdy and fragile Sharon who can easily keep up with the expletive-ridden good-natured prowess of daddy Jimmy and the more understated and dryer humour of mom Hilda Fay. Sharon’s friends brush the stereotypical at times while the kids add an unassuming touch of innocent savagery. Humour and love as weapons against the darkness. a time-tested method popular in Irish literature. In the theatre it can hardly be enacted more skillfully and credibly than here.
But there is a darkness to the story, this adaptation doesn’t do justice to and which centres around the character of Georgie Burgess, an older married man and the likely father of Sharon’s baby. Simon O’Gorman is visibly uncomfortable in the role which requires his to be a harmless buffoon while occasionally becoming a nightmarish vision, the two aspects never being connected. The bitter taste the drunken sex between an older man, a figure of authority as her friend’s father and her brother’s soccer coach, and a young woman who may well have been to passed out to agree to consensual intercourse, should leave, especially in the #MeToo age, seems lost on the production, the lightness with which this particular aspect is handled, is less than pleasant. It also strips the play on a more serious foundation as it also brushes over the confusion of pregnancy as series of anecdotes and the existential crisis becoming a mother in this way and at that age and in that country – years before the last of the Magdalen Laundries closed – doesn’t figure at all. The raucous fun the evening delivers therefore hangs suspended without much of a foundation which leaves a rather bitter aftertaste in the audience’s mouth and makes the entertainment a little too light. Just laugh and stick with your kin and all the worries will disappear is the rather simplistic message the production delivers. Roddy Doyle can do – and has done – better.