THEATRE REVIEW: Shibari

Abbey Theatre, Dublin

3 November 2012

Photo: Fiona Morgan

The Irish are rightly proud of their strong literary and dramatic tradition – wherever you go in Dublin, allusions to Joyce, Beckett, Wilde and Shaw abound. So the prospect of some new Irish writing was an irresistible one for a visiting theatre-lover, as director Tom Creed and playwright Gary Duggan make their Abbey Theatre debuts as part of the Dublin Theatre Festival. Shibari is an odd piece full of dichotomies: its Love Actually-style interlinking of different lives has become conventional, yet its progression is unexpected; while some scenes possess a power and thoughtfulness, others feel rather dead and uninspiring; and whilst some performances entertain and even electrify, one or two would not merit praise in the most ordinary of student productions. With such a mixed reaction, the piece divided my party and left me a little confused – and more than a little frustrated every time a weak point interrupted an intriguing or entertaining element.

Six characters occupy this entwined world of coincidental connections, from widowed Japanese florist Hideo, to down-on-his-luck ordinary guy Liam, to big-name movie star Nick. With the sparse set ornamented with minimal props, it is left to the dialogue and performances to do all the work in establishing setting, scenario and character: by and large, this is successful as the audience quickly find themselves in a bookshop, florist’s, nightclub or bedroom without Duggan resorting to trite exposition. Yet a script, of course, needs more than just competency of storytelling, and this one is rather lacking in depth, leaving me questioning how impressive or even interesting it truly is. Some aspects do capture our imagination but others garner little interest; for example, what should be a poignant episode – that of a young widow reflecting on her husband’s death as she returns to a long-abandoned dance class – is rather clichéd and wastes the talents of the otherwise convincing Janet Moran (Marie). Ian Lloyd Anderson may not have to stretch himself too far to play up to the Hibernian stereotypes of his character, the rather lazy Liam who is endowed – by his own admission – with a substantial dose of “Irish charm”; yet he should be credited for his natural stage presence and confidence, which emerged particularly in his early wry humour, and in his sombre tête-a-tête with fiery sister Eva (an assured Kate Nic Chonaonaigh). By contrast, Michael Yare’s performance as Nick has the opposite effect, in undermining the potential of his character through stilted and self-conscious delivery which jars with the supposed confidence and arrogant ease of his role. The rhythm of his speech is far from the natural realism adopted by the rest of the cast: while others embody their characters and situation without a struggle, Yare appears to be acting in a different production from the rest, under markedly different direction. By the end I was beginning to feel irritated that his role was so key to the web of plotlines, as his performance added little to the show and detracted much from its promise.

At the other end of the scale, Orion Lee is impressively sympathetic and sweetly amusing, yet progressively and ultimately unsettling, as Japanese florist Hideo. A figure of aloof sadness and poignant dedication to his art, the development of Hideo’s thread of the story proves the most enrapturing, and Lee’s rendering of the role is sensitively understated, and consequently the most powerful in the ensemble. It is here that the motifs of the dialogue come into force: the many references to bonds and ties may not be subtle, but they help to shape a play which is searching in vain for a strong structure and meaning. Shibari certainly leaves the best until last, as the final climactic scene is affecting in its slow, deliberate pace, shocking without crossing the line into sensationalist or gratuitous, and flawlessly played out by Lee and Alicja Ayres (Ioana). The harshness and innate threat of the ropes somehow becomes beautiful in the attention to detail of director and cast. It is an unsettling conclusion, executed with finesse – if the entire show had been of this calibre, Duggan and Creed would be on to a winner.

Yet the overall effect and the play’s lingering impression is one of fragmented achievement and part-successes. There are some thoughtful and enjoyable elements here but in attempting to explore what makes this lively city tick, Duggan fails to really get under the skin of the characters he is creating. Combined with a cast who are rather varied in their ability and suitability, and Shibari ends its run at the Abbey Theatre to a soft vote of thanks, rather than a shout of triumph.

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