“I always love it when you hear a siren go by” says father-to-be Kurt as he lies in bed with his pregnant wife, “You always think, ‘it’s not me’”. Yet in this perfectly-pitched domestic drama the hidden unease and sense of impending guilt will come to the surface as sure as the earth that lies under the floorboards or the damp that rises up the dresser in Alysin Cummins’ simple but highly effective design. The German playwright Franz Xaver Kroetz first premiered the play in 1975; one could not imagine a finer match of translator to original than Conor McPherson, whose talent for economy of expression and slow, understated build toward tragedy find their ideal home here.
Director Ian Rickson has conjured two beautiful performances in the parents Kurt (Laurence Kinlan) and Martha (Caoilfhionn Dunne), trusting in pacing and depth over melodrama to grip during the play’s ratcheting tension. Kinlan, puppyish enthusiasm masking an iron work ethic, frets about how he will work extra shifts as a lorry driver to pay for the new family member. Dunne is drawn and tense, at one point nagging him for his indulgence in the minor fantasy of a luxury car magazine. McPherson is sure to place the play solidly in modern post recession Ireland, Kurt cheerfully dismissing regulations designed to protect his mental health from over-work with “there’s more to life than mental health”. The economy that disregards the worker is one that slowly poisons us all, Kroetz implies.
PJ Harvey provides a lilting, elegiac score that helps along the ghostly transitions in the half-light, with the text itself building in an almost musical fashion to a crescendo as the environmental impact of the materialism of these ordinary people takes full horrifying effect. Gregory Clarke’s sound design provides fine whispers of the world outside the little flat of the drama, sirens in the night being among the hints that not everything is alright. The pitch to which it arrives may be difficult for some viewers, yet there is black comedy amongst it all: a particular claim that a character had “wanted a shave” when a far darker purpose is obvious is starkly pathetic and funny at once.
From the awkwardness of married sex to the totting up of domestic budgets, this is the ethical drama of the everyday, the small but heroically important morality play of the common man. Kroetz wishes to make political points about unionisation and environmentalism, but never allows them to swamp the humans involved. This story of a good people in an impossible situation is a fable of guilt, shame, culpability and materialism without an ounce of fat on it. A very fine piece of work.
The Nest is playing at the Young Vic until 26 November. For tickets and information see the Young Vic Theatre website.
Photo: David Sandison