Shining City

Conor McPherson
Royal Court Theatre Downstairs
(2004)

Conor McPherson is already a household name even though he is still in his twenties. The Weir has been a major success on both sides of the Atlantic. Shining City, which has its World Premiere at the Royal Court, prior to a headline appearance at the Gate Theatre during the 2004 Dublin Theatre Festival, takes on tougher issues but deserves to be as successful.

Ian is a former priest who has become a therapist in Dublin. His consulting rooms are a sad imitation of the real thing. Rae Smith's set, a cheaply converted warehouse-cum-office space with unfinished floor feels right, conveying an impression of unsettling impermanence.

Ian's first (and possibly only) patient is John, a man suffering trauma after the horrific death of his wife in an accident. To make matters worse, he believes that she has visited him in ghostly form, to play upon his guilt.

As the story unfolds, it becomes clear that Catholic guilt and retribution is its subject. It is also easy to see why John is uncomfortable. Despite a happy marriage, he has become obsessed with a beauty called Vivien.

When his wife dies, he is absolutely consumed by guilt and it is the job of the passive Ian to nurse him through it.

However, Ian has his own ghosts to lay. He has lost his faith and become a father. As the play opens, he has decided to desert his girlfriend and baby, in order to punish himself and also to experience the seamy side of life, mirroring John's experience.

The battle between Ian and a distraught, whining Neasa, the woman who rescued and financed him only to be ditched, is terrifying. This is especially the case when Kathy Kiera Clarke lets loose a volley of heartfelt invective.

After a first experience with the seediest rent boy imaginable, played by Tom Jordan Murphy, Ian sees sense and grows up. Again, his maturity and happiness reflect the development of his patient.

Shining Light is a wonderful, naturalistic play, both written and directed by Conor McPherson. He is a rare talent, as almost no other young playwright seems able to direct their own work to advantage.

His strength has always been as a storyteller, slowly developing monologues where what is left unsaid is almost as important as the carefully chosen words that are spoken. In the past, many of his characters have talked as if to a confessor or therapist. In this play, that confessor finally appears on stage.

There are many levels to this spare work, as lives are revealed and beliefs explored. The development of the parallel lives of the two men has a slow tempo but builds tension with this playwright's usual deftness.

McPherson is lucky and canny enough to get four fine performances from his cast. Stanley Townsend as John and Michael McElhatton as Ian, one all emotion, the other scarily calm, are both outstanding. Every word and hesitation is realistic and the men's struggles with inner demons grip from first to last.

The Royal Court has a hit on its hands.

Philip Fisher