With every strike of a match, Sal, the mannerly mother in Frank McGuinness’s monologue, sniffs the sulphur and observes the incalculable time it takes for the light to go out. It’s a simple and stark allusion to a bereaved parent contemplating the illogic of life, while also suggesting darker possibilities: playing with fire.
The Irish premiere of McGuinness’s 2012 play, produced by the Galway International Arts Festival, sees the speaker played by the formidable Cathy Belton. Stolen away inside a house on Valencia Island (a wooden box set delectably designed by Paul Keogan), Sal recounts living with Irish parents in Liverpool, and giving birth to her daughter Mary. The father of the child deserts her, a betrayal that will add to transgressions to come.
The limber Belton is in powerful control of her material, keeping Sal’s emotions checked and wittily serving the play’s funnier lines. With the news, then, of Mary being killed in the crossfire of warring gangs, the actor conveys a complex spiral of disbelief and despair. Through it all Sal manages a moment of extraordinary forgiveness, much to the offence of others: “What kind of mother doesn’t mourn her own child?”. This portrait of a wounded woman railing against a society that prejudices her takes on the feel of Greek tragedy.
It is under Joan Sheehy’s rigorous and detailed direction that Belton uses every inch of the space, where the mood is measured by blood reds and cold blues from Keogan’s rich lighting projecting onto the cloth panels of the set. Meanwhile, the broad cello strokes of Teho Teardo’s music signal an inevitable sense of destruction.
Interestingly, tribal binds begin to show as Sal’s family draws on the paramilitary history of their home in Kerry to seek justice. Adding an Irish-English dichotomy onto the gendered conflict seems to almost exhaust, as the staging prefers more otherworldly images towards the end, with the feral figure of Sal screaming out her revenge.
It’s a sustainable production overall for the Galway International Arts Festival, guided sensibly by Sheehy and Belton. Ultimately, McGuinness pushes a character that is already at odds with the world, charting a system of tragedy with extraordinary implications. It’s his best interplay of Irish and classical Greek drama yet. Disturbingly, it brings us into the realm where savage instincts are allowed to prevail, where a lit match is allowed to spread into an inferno.
The Match Box is playing at the Town Hall Theatre as part of the Galway International Arts Festival until 26 July. For more information and tickets, see the Galway International Arts Festival website. Photo: Colm Hogan.