I don’t know what I’ll say, but I can’t not write some wee silliness about St Nicholas. It was Simon Evans (The Dazzle, my love) directing Conor McPherson (Girl from the North Country, my love) so I should have realised how special it might be, but somehow I was still unprepared.

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We’re sat in an old (attic?) room.  It’s intimate but not cramped –  enough space for there to feel emptiness.  Carpets worn like life, windows wearing newspapers like stained glass, an old desk, almost abandoned.  A man, turned away from us sits in thought.  Buckets of water lie in corners, from which the man will scoop a glass to swig voraciously every time he tells of his drinking.  It’s slightly darker than you’d choose it to be.  Everything worn a bit beyond.  At times you could almost imagine the vaulted ceiling as a window to the sky.  At times you could almost imagine anything.  The man moves around the room, enclosing himself (or us?) in a magic circle of rice he pulls and pours from his pockets. He looks people directly in the eye.  Challenging us… to look into him?

St Nicholas is what theatre is all about: a great story, told well that grabs your heart and squeezes just that bit more than you can sometimes bear. 

Brendan Coyle plays a theatre critic who is all out of love, yet yearns for it.  An alcoholic husk of a man who has destroyed anything good he ever was or had the capacity to be.  He lives for his next drink and scribbles reviews carelessly on the back of programmes before a play is over, with little love or time for the art he simultaneously wishes he could create himself.  He pours hate into the world and enjoys the illusion of power it gives him over those whose true power he wishes he had.  He chooses to hate everyone and everything, but most of all he disgusts himself.  His life has become rotten: from his work to his family: he steeps it himself in a barrel of 100 percent: the only escape.  He’s been long dead, he says.  Of course, you can make your first vampiric link should you so choose.

He hardly actually likes any theatre and even if he does, he mainly envies it, wishing he could give that to the world himself.  But despite this rather appalling, cruel critic’s flaws, he is never a truly detestable character.  Yes because he tells too good a story, but also because it is clear from the start that despite all the miserable despicableness he is, his hate is born from a chasm of yearning – yearning to be more – a better person, to create, to have meaning, to give and receive love.  

And for me: here’s the crux of the play.  This ruined man who in reality puts little good into the world has an aching need to give some kind of love and compassionate magic to the world.  And to receive it.  He has not lost this hope that magic is out there: be it in memory, innocence, purity, youth, love, art.  Yet he can’t give love and he can’t feel it.  He feels care from his wife and all he can do is ignore it.  He can’t look his children in the eye.  The closest he can do is try to remember his past, how things were.  He’s tried to write himself, but he can’t.  He has the words, the feelings and the desire, but not the imagination or invention to forge it.  (What I want to ask is how did Conor McPherson, a writer who clearly does have the words so clearly articulate these true-feeling feelings and at a time when he was less than half the age of the character the play is about?)

Then one day, in a mediocre play, directed by a guy he hates, an actress enchants him. She’s called an actress, but it’s her dancing he notices – how she moves.  He speaks of her more like a dancer and she ensnares him in a way you might imagine a vampire might, if only a vampire were pure and had no dark intent.  Her grace.  A physical kind of purity.  His feelings, though he initially deems them pure too, unfortunately end far from so untainted.  Eventually this leads to pitiful, pathetic, creepy and deathly uncomfortable actions by the critic.  It’s dismal.  He can’t feel much point in existence anymore.  

And then he encounters a vampire.  

For me this was a story about art, about how powerfully we can crave and desire to be things we aren’t, about hope and about humanity for all its flawed beauty. And the ache of all of this. When we were kids, for a fleeting moment we believed in Santa and maybe our whole lives are just an attempt to recapture that belief in magic.  Time tries so hard to strip the magic away from us all and make us and our lives at best mundane.  For a moment, art can capture that fleeting magic.

I’ve told you a little of what I felt from it, but of course you don’t feel from a play in quite so linear a way. I kept leaking from my eyes and my heart kept breaking. In fact not because I found the play all that sad very often (though there’s sorrow in there): but more because I found it so utterly beautiful.  I cried a lot, but mostly also – I smiled.  Words flicker like the candles that grace the stage in the second half, like wisps of poetry in the air.  It is easy to see the vampires yourself in the half light.  And it’s funny too, but only ever momentarily because, well, this story is serious business.

And when it comes down to it, this cynical, hating and self-hating critic still clings to dreams, hope, memory, love: stories – like all of us do.  The power of storytelling.  And in a way, the beautiful subjectivity of experience as a human.  Nothing but one man, minimal, yet powerful use of sound and light, a great story and our collective and individual imaginations.  It just felt like a story of what it is to be human.  There’s something about loss and time too. We can’t return ourselves or anyone we love to the time we believed in Santa, but we can thank plays like this and those who created them for reminding us magic is always there for us to feel.  And by magic I mean the magic of nature, of humanity, of life.

It’s really hard to write about and I don’t really feel I captured how I felt at the time.  But I feel privileged to have gotten to see it.

It runs for one more week at Donmar, Dryden Street and there are 10 £25 day seats every day, so nab one!  And then it runs 9th-20th October at Smock Alley Theatre, Dublin.   I wish I could afford a flight to catch it again.  I hope it’ll have a life beyond this too as it is really something very special and I feel it would be such a shame for more people not to get to experience its chilling beauty.

PS In writing this I have begun to wonder whether in fact my thoughts and feelings were all way too naive and now I feel rather embarrassed about being me, but I loved this glorious thing so if that is the case, what does it matter really?

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What a beautiful, sorrowful play The Dazzle is.  The beauty and heartbreak of fraternal love.  I saw the penultimate performance so sadly the run at the evocative Found111 is now over, but if you notice this play being shown I’d urge you to go along as fabulous as were both acting and venue, what a beautiful creation I found the play itself.  It made me truly sob.  And not many plays have done that.

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The glorious thing about small venues is you can see every nuance of the actors and those intimate connections between characters really made this play for me.  The space made me feel as though I were in the Collyer brother’s living room.  I could smell the old books, close by on shelves and propping up the chaise longue (I was very lucky with the seat I managed to nab, admittedly!  The actors were on occasion so close I felt like I shouldn’t look at them!)  You can see the tears in characters’ eyes: not only in those most emotional scenes, but when they speak of or feel something smaller, yet which moves them deeply (or even when they’re moved by their own arguable over-philosophising..)  The glorious thing about great acting in a tiny space such as this is that there is nothing that the characters feel that isn’t transported directly into you.  A very special thing indeed.

I guess I can’t talk about the play without describing some of it.  There are but three characters: the Collyer brothers: Langley, an eccentric concert pianist (Andrew Scott), his brother Homer (David Dawson) who does Langley’s accounts… and pretty much everything else for him, and a rich yet damaged heiress who enters their lives as she falls in love with the artist, Langley (and/or as she is seeking a means of escape from her own troubled life), Milly Ashmore (Joanna Vanderham).  The play takes these three characters who are all simultaneously completely ordinary (not that they would like to think it!) and utterly extraordinary then shows us how they are connected and entwined with each other and slowly reveals the tragedy of their lives.

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Although this is really the brothers’ story it would not be the same without Milly’s presence, due to what she sees in the brothers, what she brings out in them and how they are with her.  Joanna Vanderham is poised, eloquent and articulate.  Milly seems to understand the brothers more than they are able to understand each other or even moreso, themselves.  By the second half of the play she is that tantalizing possibility we want to hold on to – that this won’t end how we know it must.  The tragic Milly becomes old and broken in spirit and physicality, yet she is still the same person in her nature.  She is still the one who sees what the men do not.

But the true story here is between the Collyer brothers.  Langley is a concert pianist and he is eccentric to the extent that he is incapable of functioning without the help of others, Langley is obsessive about the perfection of his (and all) music at the start of the play.  By the end he can lose a day to the contemplation of a pine needle and ultimately his fixation on the minutiae in life is the downfall of his career as a pianist.  Langley poeticises for aeons upon the dazzling complexities of a broken lacrosse stick like it is a long-lost friend, but he doesn’t notice let alone think of other people.  Am I alone in finding something unknowable about Andrew Scott often as an actor?  As though he can create some chasm within himself you can’t see into..?  I can imagine in other hands Langley being a fragile figure, but he is stranger, stronger and more complex than this here.  Andrew’s voice keens and Langley is one moment petulant, even callous and cruel, the next an innocent in a world that is too much for him.

Homer’s destiny was always to be to care for the brother who was special, gifted, but never would have been able to cope alone.  Homer always knew this is what his life would be and he is caught between the natural desperate desire to be his own person and his complete love for his brother.  Homer is on the surface a practical man, but he can barely conceal a gaping need inside stemming from the fact that he has never really had his own life.  His need to prove he has at least had meaningful experiences, that he has meaning of his own is like an ache he can’t contain.  Yet even without his Mother having informed Homer of his place in life, you feel his deep love for Langley would have meant he’d be in just this same place.  Homer is fractious and frustrated one moment, railing at his brother, then witty and optimistic the next.  Homer’s true tragedy is this knowledge of what his life will never be.  He wants to escape this inevitability, but the deep love he has for his brother holds him where he is and at the same time it is truly all he has.

David Dawson is utterly heartbreaking because underneath everything else that is going on for Homer, David conveys these two opposing desires of Homer’s – to protect the brother he loves more than anything and this resigned sorrow and indeed fear which he tries to bury, deny or let nobody see – that this is all his life is, all he is.  I would say these two desires were equal, but no matter the outburst he may have, Homer would only ever act on the desire that is to care for his brother.  And in fact we hear Homer did once try to begin his own life, but quickly he was drawn back to Langley.  Was it only that Langley needed him?  Or did Homer need Langley too?  Whatever the case, by the end of the play it is clear that not even his self really matters to Homer anymore.  And at just the same time we truly discover that Homer is all that matters to Langley too… and there we have the broken heart of the play.

Fraternal love.  Even though they argue and bicker incessantly, Homer’s love for Langley is clear beneath his every action.  His love is unconditional although simultaneously he resents Langley and his situation.  But the only thing Homer needs to live with this life is to know his brother appreciates him and returns this love.  But Langley is unable to say or express this.  The only concession from Langley truly (until the end of the play at least, and even then only the audience, not Homer get to witness this from Langley) is via gesture.  Near the start of the play, Langley, in a throw away manner ruffles Homer’s hair or touches his face or something (I forget precisely!  I only saw it once) and Homer leans into it or closes his eyes as though this is everything.  Later (again, I forget why!) the brothers are holding hands and Langley caresses Homer’s fingers.  The brothers are both brutal and tender with one another.  A climax of the play hinges on Langley’s unobservancy (I invented a word!  Woohoo!) of his brother, and Langley’s whole nature is that he doesn’t and can’t connect and express in this way.  But as I say, by the end of the play, at last we feel that Homer is everything to Langley too.

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This isn’t a play about characters who had infinite potential for whom everything goes wrong.  And I would say that despite extraordinary characteristics you could cite that all of these people are essentially pretty ordinary.  Their lives were always cast to be this way and their ultimate tragedy was inevitable from the beginning.  As the junk builds in their little room and it becomes a prison for Homer; as Langley’s music slows down to a tempo whereupon it leaves him entirely; as Milly’s poise is stripped away via one brutality after another to reveal the deep harm she’s always suffered.. as the junk builds it takes away the space in their room and correspondingly their lives become smaller and their demise becomes ever more inevitable and oh so terribly terribly sad that I was shaking with snotty sobs and trying desperately to not do loud crying by the end.

All this makes the play seem very sad indeed, but in fact there is a great deal of humour in The Dazzle.  It is witty, playful, inventive and clever.  It is often funny… but it is just very sad by the time you make it to the end.  There are enough facets to all of the characters that I can imagine everyone in a room full of people finding different things that they recognise in themselves and in others they know from each character.  And while Homer’s is the tragedy that starts gradually pulling at a thread in your heart from the outset and tears you apart by the end, all of the characters suffer utter tragedy.

“Look at the fire.  Wouldn’t it be lovely if it took the whole room?  Wouldn’t it be lovely if it spread and spread and took us all?” Homer says at one point.  But for these souls life simply makes their already limited worlds smaller and smaller.  You get a tantalizing glimpse that a future could be possible for these three near the end.  Then, like a change in the wind, all possibility is over.  Each other was all these brothers ever really had.

I felt this play like fire though; the underlying emotion growing slowly from a tiny flame into something incandescent, filling the imagined lives of these people with almost unbearable poignancy and heartache.

Dazzling.

Photographs: Marc Brenner

[I saw the matinee performance on 30th January 2016.  I did only see this once so I could probably have written hippo, hippo, hippo and it would mean as much as this.  But it is 24 hours later and I can’t stop thinking about it, so…]