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The Wake review at Abbey Theatre, Dublin – ‘devastating revival’

Scene from The Wake at Abbey Theatre, Dublin. Photo: Ros Kavanagh Scene from The Wake at Abbey Theatre, Dublin. Photo: Ros Kavanagh

It’s tempting to think that when The Wake premiered at the Abbey Theatre in 1998, playwright Tom Murphy was trying to put Ireland’s 20th-century atrocities in the ground before the new millennium.

Vera O’Toole (Aisling O’Sullivan) is adrift but she’s hopeful about returning to her family in Ireland. On return, she discovers they were too distracted by business and grudges to hold a wake for their departed grandmother. Welcome to the Celtic Tiger.

In director Annabelle Comyn’s neat staging, Vera’s loneliness feels suspiciously like a release. The figure first appears against a limitless, starry sky in set designer Paul O’Mahony’s backing, exchanged for a town map in scenes dealing with her money-grabbing siblings. To their displeasure, Vera has inherited the family’s hotel.

Strutting the stage in high heels, O’Sullivan cuts mean gestures with a cigarette and whiskey. She stands ready to explode like dynamite but also whimpers like a child in a poignant study of internalised suffering. She’s in good company: Brian Doherty is sincere as Vera’s ex, a past detainee at an industrial school, and Frank McCusker sharply plays her displaced brother-in-law.

The play proves prophetic for its time. Church scandals and excess materialism would be recognised the following decade by government reports and economic recession. What do we make of it now? No one is as good as Murphy at drawing the Irish people as a pack. In Comyn’s control, the ritualistic sending of something into the afterlife could be called for institutions of the past.

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Verdict
Devastating revival of Tom Murphy’s prophetic play
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