Emily Garside takes a critical look at The Other Room’s production of the Conor McPherson play St Nicholas starring Christian Patterson.
St Nicholas isn’t a cheery tale of how Christmas came to be, just in case anyone thought The Other Room was being unseasonably seasonal. It’s a far darker tale, one that involves vampires and more frighteningly theatre critics. The irony of attempting to formulate a response, to a play about a man who sees his responses to theatre as empty, sure has not escaped any critics.
Really St Nicholas is about more than theatre criticism and vampires, it’s about a man in the midst of a midlife crisis, questioning his choices and where he is going next. It’s no surprise that McPherson chose these themes when he wrote this play in 1997. Having just shot to prominence with The Weir, McPherson was no doubt feeling the power of the critic that The Man lauds during the opening sections of the piece. Of course criticism has changed much since the 90s, gone are the single powerful voices that make or break a play. We would hope that slowly changing is the idea that the voice of the middle aged man is similarly all powerful in criticism of art. But really these elements are circumstantial to McPherson’s story, they are the elements that lead The Man towards his questioning crisis point. He expresses the feeling of emptiness, his lack of real opinions, real thoughts, his own desire to create rather than critique. The elements of his chosen profession fuel his questioning of life and where it might have gone wrong.
And so we follow The Man from tales of glamourous parties in Dublin, and his own misguided infatuation with an actress in London. And that’s where he encounters the Vampires, a mysterious house full of supernatural creatures. The Man agrees to help them fuel their lifestyle, and so finds himself an alternative purpose for a while, and with it the time to reflect on life.
The strength of McPherson’s play isn’t so much in the subject matter, but in the storytelling. Told by just one actor (Christian Patterson) it’s a marathon that has the potential to go horribly wrong if handled badly. But here Patterson is a master at weaving McPherson’s tale, he engages the audience from start to finish – sometimes a little too close for comfort for those in the front rows who find themselves eyeballed. Patterson is throughout a formidable figure.
Director Titas Halder directs subtly around Patterson’s performance, enhancing it with a soundscape and simple and effective set and lighting. The set change to a series of low hanging lightbulbs for Act II, gives a sense of the darkening of the world, and subtle uses of these lights become woven into the story. Amy Jane Cook (design) along with Katy Morison (lighting) made this come effectively to life in the small space of The Other Room. While Halder’s direction of Patterson’s performance has a light touch it brings structure to McPherson’s potentially unwieldly narrative.
The key element of St Nicholas is storytelling, and the creative team are right to let that take centre stage. It’s a blend of almost thriller-like unravelling of a tale, that brings an audience in hungry for the next instalment. But it’s also hilariously funny, dry-witted and sharply observational about the world we live in, despite now being over fifteen years old. It’s a tale that will resonate long after – from the odd chuckle remembering a line, to thinking about The Man and what perhaps really happened with the Vampires.
The Other Room, Cardiff
Written by Conor McPherson
Directed by Titas Halder
Emily Garside is a writer, an active member of the Cardiff theatre community, and a contributor to Wales Arts Review.
(Image credit: Anne Pallasca)