Get our free email newsletter with just one click

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.

We need your help…

When you subscribe to The Stage, you’re investing in our journalism. And our journalism is invested in supporting theatre and the performing arts.

The Stage is a family business, operated by the same family since we were founded in 1880. We do not receive government funding. We are not owned by a large corporation. Our editorial is not dictated by ticket sales.

We are fully independent, but this means we rely on revenue from readers to survive.

Help us continue to report on great work across the UK, champion new talent and keep up our investigative journalism that holds the powerful to account. Your subscription helps ensure our journalism can continue.

Subscribers to The Stage get 10% off The Stage Tickets’ price
Devastating revival of Tom Murphy’s prophetic play