The Abbey audience is not accustomed to seeing nudity, violence and the repetitive spilling of the hidden underbelly of Irish culture all in one play – but The Wake isn’t every play.
Vera O’Toole (Aisling O’Sullivan) returns to small town Galway from New York after her beloved grandmother has died. At first we witness a smartly dressed vision of cosmopolitan big city lost in the countryside – but as time wears on Vera crumbles before us.
The woman in her late 30s is not married, she has no children, but her career that seems to be a mystery, suddenly becomes the first shock as Vera admits she has clients and talks to other “working girls” in the Big Apple.
But perhaps as an audience in Irish Catholic Ireland, we still question why Vera visits her childhood sweetheart, Finbar, played by Brian Doherty, to ask if she could sleep the night – which actually turns in to several.
By the end of the play, after we have seen more of Vera’s free-living antics, some are also no doubt querying why so many of us still feel a woman shouldn’t sleep with who she wishes – but Tom Murphy’s play’s purpose is to pose such social questions.
In one shocking scene, as Vera’s grief and the stress she is carrying from her hidden life entwined with her suffocating family, reaches its height – we see a woman fall apart.
She is reluctant to get dressed or even leave Finbar’s filthy single bed – which has become her home in Galway on this mournful trip. And a row ensues. As she shouts and loses control, Finbar hits her square in the face and her body crumbled to the floor.
Though one could only pity Vera as she writhes on the floor, then pulling up her night gown to reveal her bottom torso, hitting herself violently and shrieking “whore, whore, whore,” it seems this is a woman lost, without hope.
Like so many women in Ireland over periods of time, Vera seems symbolic of a pawn in a man’s great game.
We see just how far she has fallen from the bosom of the upper-middle class O’Toole clan, as Vera guides Finbar and her sister’s husband, Henry (Frank McCusker), to the hotel her recently deceased mother has left her.
For the next number of days, she provides a shocking stage for villagers, as they walk to church and back and go about their daily lives, and she indulges in a threesome with Finbar and Henry, from the windows of the hotel.
The three lovers are displayed laughing and drinking, lying half clothed as Vera speaks of her desire to have revenge on her family – for failing to tell her of her grandmother’s death sooner. It becomes clear Vera will not be happy until she carries out one of the most Irish of rituals, The Wake.
We then learn Vera was brought up for most of her childhood by her grandmother and now she believes her mother took her back after a row over land.
In a sense the call girl has never stopped being a bargaining chip, for sex, for possession, for reputation.
In the end it seems despite her downward slope to immorality in the eyes of Catholic Ireland – Vera may be as she points out after being sent off to a psychiatric ward, “the only one certified sane,” as her siblings show themselves to be odious and money hungry above all else.
Murphy’s play is controversial indeed and it makes us look at an Ireland we perhaps don’t wish to admit is still there. The Wake may be set in the ’90s, and not such a distant past, but truly can we say our obsession with morality, sex, women and their place, and the love affair many place above all else, with land, has changed so much.
This is a mirror of our society and many of the sins perhaps we have yet to even start to free ourselves from.
The Wake is showing at the Abbey Theatre, Dublin, until July 30. Box office: 01 878 7222.