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The day after a party. Crumpled beer cans, a smashed TV, a lamp bent out of shape and a dead man in his armchair. These are all haunted objects scattered atop an old, dusty rug. Something violent has clearly taken place, but the exact history of the mess hangs in a tense ambiguity that will never quite be realised. This is the carefully minimal scenery of Off Main Stage’s new drama, Stags, setting the cryptic tone for the entire play to come.
The quiet brutality of the scene is interrupted by Tony (Blake Kubena), who enters the room in an anxious return to his working-class family home in Dublin. When the scene prompts him to recall traumatic childhood memories, his Da (Tim Molyneux) reanimates for a fiery confrontation over conflicting values and versions of events. More tangled layers of the same are piled on later when Conn (James Finnegan), Tony’s ex-convict brother who turns out to be his Da’s murderer, arrives home too. The tensions of past traumas and present dangers develop over heavy domestic themes of neglect, money, duty of care and abuse, all unfolding through stubborn traces of the past that refuse to form a whole truth.
Director Naomi Wirthner’s artful use of silence in the dialogue between Tony and his Da are the most exciting thing about being at live theatre again. Through agonising lengths of stillness in their conversation (enforced by the simple lighting design and Molyneux’s cold intensity), we’re reminded that Tony is alone with his thoughts. Hiding tears from his father, even after his death, we find ourselves immersed in the confusion and internal noise of a man trying to make sense of his past, present and future family life.
“She’s dead to me”, says Da, as he curses his sons’ absent mother who left to start a new life without them, and we’re reminded that even death itself is an ambiguous notion. Later, as Da slumps between Tony and Conn in a silently precarious space between life and death, we see a man who resists being laid to rest; his body is kept warm by the friction between his sons and a legacy that won’t be decided. It’s this consistently symbolic visual tension that really carries the depth of drama that, unfortunately, the characters often lack.
Aside from a few spitting moments of dark humour, most sharply delivered by Molyneix’s scathingly sarcastic tone, Cameron Corcoran’s script is deprived of the range needed for any real investment in the characters and their desires. Conn and Tony’s mean perspectives in particular seem to shout over one another without ever truly fusing and reacting.
Married comfortably to a tired representation of doomed masculinity and a hard cycle of violence, Stags feels littered with missed moments for connection — moments that would only work to raise the stakes in the most violent and devastating events. With no common ground between the brothers, and with any taste of vulnerability being shut down all too quickly, as it stands, the play’s murderous ending is somehow both out of nowhere and hardly shocking at the same time.
“Where the fuck is home?” asks Conn as he laments his ever displaced existence.
From such a dark and focussed example of domestic naturalism such as Stags, I find myself expecting some sense of revelation or truth in place of another murder scene. But in this web of clashing narratives, the story, like Conn, doesn’t quite find a meaningful place to end up.
Stags is playing Network Theatre until 22nd May. For tickets and information, see Network Theatre’s website.