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July 05, 2004

Shining City - Conor McPherson

Posted by Kenneth Minogue

Conor McPherson's Shining City
Royal Court Theatre, London
Jerwood Theatre Downstairs
4th June - 7th August 2004

Professor Kenneth Minogue will be providing regular theatre reviews for the Social Affairs Unit.

Playgoing is a form of eavesdropping. It's like the dream of being an invisible man, able to follow people into their innermost privacies. But the plays that get reviewed and talked about generally have some general subject. They are 'about' something, usually some aspect of the human predicament.

Conor McPherson's Shining City is about the disorientation of people seeking solidity in a post Christian world. Ian is a priest who got a girl pregnant and has now left the Church and set up as a counsellor. Counselling is, you might say, the only trade he knows. He has now, however, fallen out of love with the girlfriend, and a painful scene has him telling her this. Like everyone in the play, these lovers are inarticulate. Sentences trail off, and the interpolated 'you know' becomes the standard appeal to the interlocutor to recognise that at least some slight fragment of understanding has been transmitted across the vast divide between people who want to reveal some things but to conceal a great deal more. They thresh around amid conventions of decency and the aspirations of honesty.

Into Ian's counselling world comes John, a middle-aged businessman whose wife was recently killed in a car crash. His world has been shaken by the fact that he is being haunted by her ghost, an irruption of the spiritual into ordinary life (an experience accompanied by the banalities of ice cream selling chimes) that Ian the counsellor interprets away, even as he himself yearns for some sign to confirm the reality of a beyond. John has lacked a kind of tuning fork to tell him what he is coming too late to understand that the humdrum companionship he had enjoyed with his wife had actually been real and valuable. At the time, however, that companionship had been subject to the discontents people unreflectively suffer from as a result of comparing their lot with others in John's case, particularly, the fact that others had children and they did not.

Here are people who don't know what they really want, nor the value of what they have. Ian the ex-priest is not even sure of his sexuality, and picks up a rent boy one night in an embarrassed encounter. Indeed, encountering is in every sense the keynote of this brilliant slice of life. Its idiom is realistic, and as with all literary realism, nothing changes very much. Ian may want to leave his girlfriend, but in the end he is going off to Limerick to live with her. We end with a theatrical coup suggesting that the dimension represented by the ghost is real. McPherson has the playwright's gift, and here puts in the service of a dazzling moral and spiritual critique of contemporary life.

Kenneth Minogue is Professor Emeritus of Political Science, London School of Economics.

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