Theatre review: The Beacon at the 2019 Dublin Theatre Festival
The Beacon, Druid/The Gate, 2019
Written by Nancy Harris
Director: Garry Hynes
Cast: Ian-Lloyd Anderson, Jane Brennan, Rae Gray, Daniel Monaghan, Marty Rea
The Gate Theatre, Dublin - 5th October 2019
It's by no means ambitious for a play or any other art form to seek to reveal truths about society, about human nature, about the world we live in, but Nancy Harris's The Beacon only appears to be a drama about hidden secrets. For a long while you're going to see more of a domestic drama of family secrets, and it looks doubtful that you're going to find any truths other than the revelations that each of the members of this family have been trying to keep hidden. You expect more from The Gate though and from the Druid theatre company, and in the end Nancy Harris's play does perhaps offer a few new perspectives on truth, even if it's only for how the idea of truth can change over the years and the serious impact it has on individuals when it's kept hidden for so long.
It's easy to lose any sense of deeper considerations of this theme in the actual family drama though because the performers, the characters , their relationships to one another (lots of simmering barely disguised tensions) and the secrets they keep are fairly compellingly laid out. Compelling maybe, but not particularly original, Marina Carr's The Mai coming to mind here. Colm (Marty Rea) has had a difficult relationship with his artist mother Beiv (Jane Brennan) since the death of his father many years ago. A software engineer in America, he's returned to the family's holiday home on an island off the West coast of Ireland with a young wife Bonnie (Rae Gray) that he has told no-one about. He's not the only one keeping secrets as we discover when he meet his old childhood friend Donal (Ian-Lloyd Anderson) and discover that there are others on the island still trying out to find out the truth about his father's mysterious death.
What becomes clear and what is revealed by The Beacon is that any idea of there being a simple truth is fluid and subjective. That's not a major revelation but it's handled well in the context of the drama - or heavy-handedly depending on your perspective because the truth is evidently subjective there too. And indeed - since there's a piece of art at the centre of the work (and centre of the stage) that is reflected on differently at the start than it is at the end, the question of the value of art as a way of revealing the truth is also important.
Again, you can see the interpretation of the painting as a clever dramatic device or you can see it as being somewhat heavy-handed, but it at least it fulfils its purpose of bringing the question of interpretation into the play itself. It's not the only device Nancy Harris has in her armoury however and there is a similar ambiguity that raises questions about the reliability of what we consider to be the truth changing over time. Sexual identity and preferences have changed between the past and the present, affections change - rather quickly - over the course of the play, and the idea of impermanence is frequently evoked in relation to the changes in people and places, and even in the structure of the house on the island - and impressive set designed by Francis O'Connor - with its new glass windows replacing the stone walls seeking openness and light.
Some of the dramatic turns of events might not work so well and some of the character traits and changes in behaviours could be considered to be unrealistic within the time-frame were it not for the uniformly superb acting performances from the individual cast members and their ensemble work. From a dramatic point of view, there is no question these are an intriguing group of characters with well-defined personalities that you can see have been shaped by their personal life histories, backgrounds, social class and sexual identity or identities. It's brilliantly brought to life in a way that makes The Beacon compelling drama with a hint of something more to say about the changing times and changing perspectives on the truth.