Conor McPherson was twenty-five when his eerie play The Weir won a deserved acclaim on both sides of the Irish Sea. His most recent work, The Seafarer, is another foray into the realms of the supernatural. Like The Weir, it centres on a group of garrulous Irishmen who are drinking, arguing and yarning. Unlike the earlier play, though, the supernatural element is much more explicit.
The play centres on the tribulations of Sharky (Karl Johnson), a middle-aged man who seems to have made a thorough shambles of his life. Having lost yet another job - by becoming over-fond of his employer's wife - Sharky has returned to Dublin to look after Richard, his older brother. Richard (Jim Norton) has recently gone blind due to an accident involving a skinful and a skip. He is now a demanding invalid.
We join Sharky on Christmas Eve, and the seasonal drinking is well under way. Sharky has sworn off the booze for the duration. Richard, predictably, regards him as a party-pooper. Their friend Ivan (Conleth Hill), a kind of Sharky-in-training, is more sympathetic. At first the play seems to be a comedy of hilariously bad manners, with Richard bullying Sharky while Ivan searches for his lost glasses and frets about his wife's likely reaction to his boozy antics. But McPherson drops a few hints that something darker is going on.
Enter Nicky (Michael McElhatton), an old 'friend' who is now living with Sharky's ex. Nicky has brought a bar-room acquaintance, the dapper Mr Lockheart (Ron Cook). Richard (much to Sharky's dismay) has invited Nicky over for a game of cards, and Mr Lockheart is keen to join in. But, when the rest of the group leave the house temporarily, the stranger reveals himself to be - well, 'the son of the morning'. Once, in a lock-up, this intruder played poker with Sharky, and lost. The prize was Sharky's freedom. Twenty-five years on, another game is due. This time the stakes are more traditional, from a Satanic point of view.
There is a slight clashing of gears when Lockheart reveals himself to be the Adversary. It's been a while since Satan trod the boards in a serious moral drama (for an English-speaking audience, anyway). But when the rest of the cast return and resume the seasonal banter every other remark takes on a darker significance. Lockheart's probing questions soon reveal that Ivan, in particular, has played for high stakes before.
Richard's bullying of Sharky, and the suggestion that he wouldn't be missed, is especially effective when we know that Sharky is (seemingly) doomed. Jim Norton deservedly won an Olivier for best supporting actor. McPherson rightly gives the old grouch some of the best lines. At one point he refers to replacing Sharky with a cleaning woman and 'one of those dogs that brings your meals'. Rarely has a play about love, free will and the problem of evil had so many laughs.
The poker game itself takes up the second half of the play, and is superbly handled. A bunch of drunken blokes playing cards for money can produce drama enough for most of us. Sharky's fatalism when Lockheart wins the final hand is moving. A true working-class hero, he must go with his old enemy to 'the hole in the wall', ostensibly to get some extra cash. There is, however, a final twist to come - one that stems naturally from some earlier comic shenanigans. I enjoyed The Seafarer immensely. If you get the chance to see it, go along. You will be surprised by how well the supernatural performs on the modern stage.