There Came A Gypsy Riding is the best thing Frank McGuinness has ever written. It’s a shrewd and compassionate play and I am very jealous. It’s playing now at the Almeida in London.
The play is both mesmerisingly funny and very sad and it’s got the dream team cast: Imelda Staunton (Vera Drake, amongst many other film credits), Eileen Atkins and Elaine Cassidy.
Atkins, who is considered a national treasure in Britain (and rightly so!) plays Bridget, who is a Celtic priestess and seer, infinitely wise and shacking up with Satan. Or she is an elderly, Alzheimers-ridden, dirt poor rotten bitch. Both interpretations are possible. Bridget lives in a shack near the sea in County Donegal, Ireland. Elaine Cassidy -- who was by far the best Abigail in The Crucible ever and stole Leiutenant of Inishmore in 2002 – is Bridget’s much younger cousin, Louise. Louise, her brother Simon and their parents gather at their country house near Bridget’s to mark the two year anniversary of the suicide of their brother, son and nephew, age 19. The astonishing Staunton is the mother, Margaret, the head of English at a Dublin University and her husband is Leo. Leo’s a rich pub owner. Bridget produces a suicide note she has been hiding. That’s basically the whole play.
Louise, Bridget and Margaret are three great, strong woman characters at different times in their lives. Louise in the bloom of her 30s, Margaret in the dignity of her 50s and Bridget in twilight. Louise is a cynic and whip-smart. She mostly hates her mother, Margaret. She has good reason to. Margaret is critical, negative, and sarcastic toward Louise. But Margaret is no harder on Louise than she is on herself. Margaret is combative and faces the world with a brutal pessimistic stoicism. She is also very funny. I think ultimately the play is about Margaret’s self-hatred. Or is it a fate-cursed family that loves each other? Or is it just kind of sit-commy with a crazy old lady guest star? Like any really, really good play, I feel like I could talk about it for a long time. After which, could we please discuss why a clear majority of the best playwrights are Irish? I honestly feel like I may have to move there.
Staunton is a virtuouso playing the entire range of Margaret’s stunning complexity. At one point, she tells her children proudly that she promised herself when they were young, she would never have to look them in the eye as adults and tell them that raising them had interfered with what she wanted to do in life. It comes across as laughably selfish and essentially kind, at the same moment. And Staunton’s acting is so exquisite that she communicates the duality by the way she holds a water glass. And by the way, she’s drinking water because she gave up drinking when she found out that her son had been drunk when he died. As this play is Irish, this is the greatest punishment a mortal can inflict upon herself. And she inflicts it on Leo.
While Leo has the greatest line of the play, (“I judged myself and found myself wanting”), he and Simon are essentially expository. Leo at least spars with Margaret, but Simon mostly listens. I felt a little sorry for Adrian McArdle who played Simon, but then I remembered the gender imbalance in the English cannon and I felt better.
The rest of the audience pretty much stopped laughing after the suicide note was produced at the end of Act I, but I found the reading of the suicide note to be hilarious. Margaret’s guilt blinds her completely to the reality of the situation. She is determined to punish herself and the lengths to which she will twist reality to fulfil that determination are very funny and desperately harrowing.
The play dances across the knife edge border between comedy and tragedy. It’s so funny, it’s harrowing. It’s so harrowing, it’s funny. I was laughing out loud with tears in my eyes. It was a strange and precious experience. I hope you will be able to see this play, or one as good. I hope that I will be able to write one.
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Last edited on Fri Feb 9th, 2007 11:22 am by Swann1719