Arthur Riordan redeems himself wonderfully after his misfiring version of Peer Gynt with a Flann O’Brien dramatisation for his second show of the Dublin Theatre Festival.
Riordan, freed from the self-imposed restraints of rhyming couplets in his assault on Ibsen’s verse drama, is back on top comedic form as he tackles Flann O’Brien’s unfinished novella Slattery’s Sago Saga. Rathfarnham Castle is an odd place for a play but then this is the site-specific Performance Corporation, who had umbrellas at the ready to distribute to the audience which spends the first ten minutes of the 100 minute show outside in the rain as our hero, anxious servant Tim (Karl Quinn), awaits the arrival of the houseguest from hell, his master’s fiancé (Helen Norton), who drives up in a car which he unpacks, before Darragh Kelly’s mischievous Slattery leads the audience indoors to the room that will serve as the pivotal drawing room of Poguemahone Hall.
Fassbendering aplenty comes from Michael Glenn in support as Murphy and many, many other characters. A change of walk, costume, and absurd accent and he’s yet another caricature, whether it’s a doddery old British imperialist or a parish-pumping as they come corrupt rural TD. The plot is stark nonsense about replacing the potato with a legally mandated sago crop to prevent the Irish from infesting America, with eventual undertones of supernatural invasion plans. There is though something disturbing about the uncomplicated laughs with which the Scottish villain’s anti-Irish diatribes are met as such ironic racism is only slightly more hyperbolic than Anglo-American rhetoric actually aimed at Irish people not so long ago. Such reservations though take a back seat when confronted with such energy as is on show.
Hay Fever star Kathy Rose O’Brien, sporting vintage 1960s costumes, makes a belated entrance as the writer who has been trying to keep the script going but has run out of ideas. The other characters are horrified when it is revealed that a lack of plot will kill a character. This leads to tremendous comic set-pieces, especially from an increasingly manic Darragh Kelly both rewriting and being rewritten, and the funniest joke of the entire play: “Could you not think of enough plot to keep him on? I mean how much does it take to keep an invisible terrier going anyway!?” Director Jo Mangan amps up the meta-textual chaos and absurdity admirably (leprechaun lineages are revealed) aided by a wonderfully self-destructing set from Ciaran Bagnall, in which one character hysterically gets trapped during renovations, while another hides for half the play.
Slattery’s Sago Saga takes a while to get going, and, hilariously enough, it’s only when Flann’s material runs out and Riordan starts doing At-Swim Two-Birds, with characters attacking each other via rewrites, that proceedings catch fire, but if this returns to Rathfarnham Castle for a third time it’s well worth catching.