Review: The Veil

By John Nathan, October 10, 2011

Lyttelton, National Theatre, London SE1

Ghost stories often abound in Conor McPherson's work. With his latest offering, his first in five years and which the author also directs, the chosen setting of an English-owned estate of fast fading grandeur located in Ireland in 1822 may be posher than usual, but that sense of how we carry our buried pasts is as strong as ever.

The play is set entirely in a mansion's spooky drawing room where 10 years previously the mentally unstable master of the house hanged himself. He is survived by his haughty widow, Lady Madeleine Lambroke, and her daughter Hannah, who discovered her father's body and is known to hear the voices of the dead. Hannah and is about to married off to far richer aristocracy in England. She doesn't like the idea, but the union will allow the crumbling estate's debts to be settled.

McPherson is not just nodding to Chekhov here - he is practically shouting his name through a megaphone. There is an estate in debt, as in The Cherry Orchard, a human chain of unrequited love, and also the sense of a privileged household surrounded by destitution. There is even a Cherry Orchard-like unexplained sudden noise which here comes just as the buffoonish Reverend Berkeley and his laudanum-addicted writer companion Audelle attempt a séance.

And again, as is often the case with Chekhov, alcohol flows very freely. Here it especially breaks down barriers between staff and their upper-class employer, allowing some wonderfully sozzled scenes in which deeply felt emotions and long-held social conventions are deliciously undermined.

The trick triumphantly pulled off here is in allowing two moods – comic, almost frothy light and terrifyingly dark – to exist simultaneously. And it is largely thanks to a terrific Fenella Woolgar as Lady Madeleine, who can turn all the high emoting on its head with the line "For God's sake, someone get me a drink". The play delivers change between the two without an audible crunching of gears.

Emily Taaffe as the haunted Hannah is also excellent, revealing as much strength as fragility in a girl cursed with the gift of being able to detect the spiritual world.

For the sceptical among us, it is reassuring that McPherson is ultimately much more interested in the living than the dead. Having said that, The Veil has forced me to amend a long-held view about plays with ghosts that are not written by Shakespeare - that they become much less interesting as soon as the ghosts actually appear.

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Last updated: 2:38pm, October 10 2011