WINTER’S TALES AT THE SAM WANAMAKER PLAYHOUSE.
Aidan Gillen gets straight to the heart of Joyce’s most celebrated short story from Dubliners, with music by Feargal Murray.
A bitter winter night is the perfect setting for listening to this new year story, where galoshes are needed to get through the snow. Gabriel Conroy arrives to celebrate the old, honourable traditions of Irish hospitality, beautifully displayed by his aunts Kate and Julia, whose ‘ignorance’ is so much preferable to the pert, sharp-eyed questioning of moderniser and hyper-patriot Miss Ivor.
Splendidly dressed with proper formality for the occasion, narrator Aidan Gillen immediately seizes the spirit of the story and brings us straight to the heart of this New Year gathering, where nephew Gabriel is the cornerstone of the party. His is the responsibility for the big speech; he has to ‘pilot’ drunk Freddy Malins to safety, and sit at the head of the table to enjoy every course of the feast so deliciously described by Joyce, from the goose right down to the blancmange and fruit.
Gillen inhabits the story completely, and transmits all its humour and wry observation, as well as the deep discomfort felt by Gabriel as he fusses over his clothes and wonders if his speech will be too high and mighty for his audience.
Music plays a key role in The Dead, with the sisters’ own musical talents demonstrated at their festive entertainment, and Kate’s long-held anger – still raw – that her sister should be cast out of the choir by the Pope for not being a boy…
And it’s the tenderness of an old melody, The Lass of Aughrim, that later triggers Gretta Conroy’s memories of a long-dead love, and her tears for him quench Gabriel’s passionate desire for his wife, while bringing him to a new understanding of himself, and of love.
Joyce’s exposure of a husband’s loss of self-respect and a wife’s loss of beauty, both invite an equal measure of pity. Life and all its vanities feel as though they’re being blotted out under the blanket of descending snow.
In the poignant closing section, Gabriel calmly accepts the gathering shades and ghosts of the past, as snow covers all of Ireland, the dead and the living.
Gillen was advised on The Dead by playwright Conor McPherson, and Feargal Murray composed all the music for this reading of the story. It’s fitting that Murray’s work, particularly in the final passages, should evoke such an emotional response from the audience.
The seconds of pin-drop silence that close this performance are testament to its power.
• Monday 5 Jan: Daphne Du Maurier, read by Harriet Walter, 7.30pm.