Underneath It All

It’s been so long. Have you missed us? We’ve missed you. But we’re back- for now anyway- with a bumper blog from dynamic duo Andy McLoughlin and Jack Synnott reviewing Underneath by Pat Kinevane. Our members were treated to the performance and a post show talk a few weeks ago and we’ve had so much to say that we had to split up the labour between Andy (AM) writing on themes and plot and Jack (JS) writing about the production. Enjoy!

AM: As a play, Underneath is, in a word, layered- which, I suppose, makes a lot of sense given its title. From its very first moments, we are shown that a surface level reading is not going to be enough. Jack will go into more detail about the sheer grandeur that we are presented with in the first moments of the play, but it’ll suffice to say that those first few seconds give a very strong first impression. “Oh Jesus”, the audience thinks. “This is going to be one of those art plays, isn’t it? The ones where no one says anything and we’re supposed to figure out the plot ourselves.” And then, the actor opens his mouth, and out comes the very first line of the play in a high pitched cork accent: “Ye never know what’s around the corner, do ye?” And for the entire rest of the play, this is completely true. In every facet, from moment to moment, from character to character, from script to costume to direction, this play defies both categorisation and simplification. We have to look closer, we have to ask what’s underneath.

 

JS Walking into the theatre, the audience is introduced to a completely open stage. All curtains have been removed, leaving behind a space that, much like Underneath’s protagonist, is laid bare for all to see. In place of the usual ornamentation that regularly adorns the stage of the Droichead Arts Centre, a single, lavish gold curtain is draped from the ceiling. Beside this sits an elegant but dishevelled chaise, while various gold clad items, from RTE Guides to lamp shades are littered around the stage’s floor. From the central chaise, accompanied by aggressive, almost tribal music, rises a slow-moving, sluggish and sinister figure. She is dressed entirely in black, with face and hands painted to match this motif, across her face is a literal explosion of gold face paints, which will later take on an unnerving significance, and pulled around her shoulders is a holed, rag-like shawl. As this lurking figure greets them, the audience are reminded of a monstrous being, as our heroine initially invokes terror rather than sympathy. But this is all soon to change. The aforementioned, darkly humorous opening line offers an immediate juxtaposition, the ilk of which will be seen again countless times throughout the play. Underneath starts as it means to go on, balancing humour and horror, laughter and tears, and ultimately, beauty and ugliness to masterful effect. The blinding lights, jarring score and ominous set dressing are instrumental in achieving this delicate balancing act, but it is truly Pat Kinevane’s solo performance that brings this indescribable contradiction to life.

 

AM: The play’s basic premise is that as a young girl, our nameless protagonist was struck by lightning in such a way as to leave her appearing huge and intimidating, in complete contrast with her self-effacing, playful personality. Under normal circumstances, this contrast between appearance and reality could be alienating. But between Kinevane’s interaction with the audience and his character’s almost painfully endearing sense of humour, we are forced again and again to acknowledge the humanity of this strange character. The rest of the characters in this play can more or less be divided up between those who are willing to look past the appearance of this person and those who aren’t. It’s this constant conflict between the play’s intimidating aesthetic and charming writing that makes Underneath so compelling.

 

JS: Kinevane’s heartfelt performance undoubtedly highlights Underneath’s fascinating internal conflict. Throughout the course of the play, Kinevane bounces around the stage, occupying every corner and bringing an insatiable energy and, above all, genuine humanity to this innocent-but-damned character. The decision to play the part gender blind, with the male Kinevane playing a female character, if anything aids in this portrayal of hidden beauty, with Kinevane’s broad, manly figure only accentuating the compassion and affection of our heroine. As a one man show, this play could easily push Kinevane to his performance limits, but he appears to rise to this challenge without ever breaking a sweat. Skillfully guided by director Jim Culleton, Kinevane never fails to hit exactly the right notes, whether making acerbic quips about Charles and Camilla or portraying the powerfully unleashing of years of accumulated anger, his performance is always captivating, thrilling to watch and endlessly tugs at the heartstrings. One does not have to look far to understand why Kinevane is world renowned for his craft.

 

AM: As the play progresses, the undertones of social commentary become more and more pronounced as we are asked to look past the events of the play to the ways in which society seals the destiny of our protagonist. Whereas she is outcast and impoverished from an early age and remains that way throughout, the romantic interest and eventual antagonist of the play who serves as her foil is born handsome and wealthy (he’s descended from English landlords who exploited the Irish poor), and it seems he’s destined to live a long and happy life, no matter what he does to the people around him. Of course, Underneath being the play it is, things are never quite that simple, and when it comes to the destinies of these characters, you never do quite know what’s around the corner. The entire play is riddled with this kind of uncertainty, and for every action there is some greater force beneath the surface, personal or societal, controlling that behaviour.

 

JS: The use of sound throughout the play gives it yet another layer, both literal and metaphysical. When we witness the faithful tragedy which leaves Kinevane’s protagonist so outwardly scarred, the pre-recorded sounds blend unnervingly with Kinevane’s own pagan-esque wails, forming a dissonant cacophony invoking nothing less than sheer terror. Throughout the play, and in particular at the most dramatic moments, a wind-like, unnatural sound jolts the viewer into attention, our protagonist assures us that this is simply the sound of mortal souls being torn between the realms. Through this disturbing and distinctly unmusical use of sound, and the internal mythology attached to it, the play is given an almost claustrophobic atmosphere. Kinevane is alone on stage for the duration of the play, but thanks to this skilful employment of sound effects it feels as though another character, another consciousness is present. The audience finds themselves believing that something unpleasant is always there to face down our friendly protagonist, that darkness is swamping this theatrical experience. In a similar vein, music is used to powerful effect in Underneath. Whether it’s a rhapsodic hymn on the nature of beauty (or society’s idea of it) or a late-night banger at a Dublin disco, the original compositions throughout the play have a guttural, non-linear quality, once again sending the audience’s nerves on edge and emphasising the uncertainty the play seeks to highlight. This becomes even more overwhelming when coupled with the play’s lighting effects, which are nothing short of astounding. Spotlights follow Kinevane around the stage, picking up every hidden thing, every secret that lurks in his path. The contrast between light and shade on stage changes constantly, perhaps symbolising the flippant movement of the line between beautiful and horrific and when it comes to the nightclub scene, as the nameless character finally accepts her inner beauty and dances to her heart’s content, one can clearly witness magic happening on stage. It is not often that one experiences a theatrical treat as vibrant, as depthful, as tender and as terrifying as Underneath, the magic of which,  found both in what is mundane and extraordinary, linger in the mind long after the lights have stopped shining.

 

AM: Full disclosure, at points in this review, we may have been a little bit more than fair in our praise for this play. The reason for this is that writer/performer Pat Kinevane gave a post-show for the youth theatre, and it’s safe to say we fell in love with him. In his response to almost all the questions he graciously answered for us, he seemed to have one message he wanted us to take home: stay true to your artistic sensibilities. There are people who would rather pretend they can make sense of every facet of a Beckett play than admit that they enjoy the uncertainty of not knowing what’s going on. If this mistake sounds familiar it’s because it’s what I’ve been doing for this entire essay. In its two hours Underneath plunges the depths of love and beauty and class and destiny and for all we can say about the production in 1,500 words or less, this play serves a reminder that it can never be enough. Many people walked out of the theatre not minding that they weren’t able in those two hours to unpick all the thoughts that Kinevane had spent weeks and months writing down, and I think that’s ok. If it was compelling and emotive and it made them see the world in a different light, then it appealed to their artistic sensibilities on a different level. But if there’s one message I took home from this play, it’s that we need to remember- with art as with people- that if we want to do justice to what we are shown by others, we must stop to look closer, to think past our first impressions, to find the hidden depth of meaning, underneath it all.

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