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The Veil, National Theatre

Written and directed by Conor McPherson
Courtesy of National Theatre
Well, we have just entered the first few days of October, which means that the grueling period of Hallowe’en is upon us. Yes, entire aisles of supermarkets dedicated to low-grade costumes, children banging on your door, asking for the sweets which you inevitably have forgotten to buy (they never seem satisfied with apples or stale digestive biscuits), and, perhaps worst of all, the incessant playing of “Monster Mash” by Bobby Pickett and the Crypt-kickers at basically any event which you may deign to attend. That song, much like the zombies who sing it, refuses to die a graceful and timely death. In case it is not clear, I do not like Hallowe’en. You can imagine then that I was not particular riveted at the prospect of The Veil, a ghost story written specifically for the National, cleverly timed to coincide with my least favourite holiday. So was this show to die for, or should its author be buried alive?
The story itself is set in a particularly bleak period of Ireland’s already difficult history. 1822: a catastrophic economic time for rural Ireland caused by a succession of failed crops, which lead to widespread poverty, desolation and resentment. We follow a family of English landowners, the Lambrokes, whose current situation is even more gloomy: they are broke, cannot pay their servants’ wages, and are still traumatised by Mr Lambroke’s suicide a few years prior. To make matters worse, seventeen-year-old Hannah Lambroke is hearing voices. The only solution appears to be to have Hannah married off to a rich Marquis in Northampton, a arrangement of which the young girl is resentful. So far, this is basically the same plot as The Cherry Orchard by Chekhov. Mrs Lambroke has arranged for her cousin, a defrocked reverend, to escort her daughter to Northampton for the wedding. This leads to catastrophe however, when the paranormal-obsessed reverend and his traveling partner Mr Audelle organise a séance to try to understand the eerie vibe of the crumbling estate.
So far, so gloomy. That being said, it must be said that the script is exceedingly well written, and the cast truly bring out the best in it. This is undoubtedly the main advantage of having the Author direct the world premiere of their own play – they know how to stress the strengths and hush the weaknesses of their work. The audience can feel sorry for the characters, but also laugh, thanks to a heavy dose of black humour which really shines through.
As for performances, I must admit there were no weak links. The parts are all difficult, since each character is at some level deeply unhappy and/or scarred by their past. Some honourable mentions go out to Peter McDonald who plays the debt-ridden groundsman Mr Fingal whose loyalty to the Lambrokes means he is resented by pretty much everyone else he knows. In many ways, his desperation is the catalyst for much of the action in the second half, and he bears this load convincingly well. Emily Taafe also did a good job as Hannah, and the character’s interior torment is obvious. Jim Norton takes the role of comic relief as the defrocked Reverend Berkeley. He is the awkward relative who is overly jovial at family reunions, even though everyone knows he is deeply unhappy (you know the type). However, for me the best performance was from Adrian Schiller as Charles Audelle. By far, he is the most tortured character is the play, but keeps a stiff upper lip in the face of incessant humiliation until he cannot bear it any longer. The performance given by Schiller is excellent. Even before the full force of Audelle’s anguish is revealed, one can spot the trauma of the character in Schiller’s masterful body language, his darting glances and awkward humour.
The set, designed by Rae Smith, perhaps best know for her work on War Horse, is stunning (we have come to expect no less from the national) but it is the detail which is particularly pleasing. The crumbling 19th century estate house is covered the branches of an enormous tree, the bows of which sway in the wind and during a storm. This touch truly adds to the overall atmosphere of the show. Neil Austin, the Olivier Award-winning lighting designer, returns to use his trademark style on this production. Austin is very good at lighting period dramas such as this, as uses his trademark “through the window” lighting to tremendous effect. As expected, it is stunning.
In the end, this play is one which I would highly recommend. I will not ruin the surprises of the plot, but it has a very Chekhov-esque first half followed by a glued-to-the-edge-of-your-seat second half. Ultimately, this is a ghost story, but unlike more commercial examples of the genre (such as The Woman in Black), it steers clear of clichés and is rather subtle and elegant, yet at times really quite frightening. Even for hardened cynics like myself, it would be hard not to enjoy this production. I suppose that although Hallowe’en is probably the most dreadful time of year, if it means that we get to see pieces of theatre like this, then I suppose it’s not so bad. 

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The Veil runs at the National Theatre until 11th December 2011.
Box Office: 020 7452 3000 or book online at http://www.nationaltheatre.org.uk/


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