Stage

Review: Sebastian Barry finds all the right words On Blueberry Hill

Niall Buggy as Christy and David Ganly as PJ in Sebastian Barry's acclaimed On Blueberry Hill, streaming online as part of the Belfast International Arts Festival
Jane Hardy

REVIEW

ON BLUEBERRY HILL

Belfast International Arts Festival

SEBASTIAN Barry is the novelist whose writing irresistibly pins down experience like insects in amber. You can see, the simile-rich style is catching.

Now he's moved to drama and On Blueberry Hill (2017), directed by Tim Culleton, was an online treat from Fishamble, streaming until tomorrow to the Belfast International Arts Festival's distant audience.

Starting with two men, isolated and wearing dark prison clothes, we hear elderly but game Christy Dwyer (Niall Buggy), from a long line of tinkers and with the expected gift of the gab, and PJ Sullivan (David Ganly), the priest with impressive vocation.

Both reminisce, piecing together different backgrounds which yet share some of the favoured Irish memes: faith, love of your mother, loss and the wonders of landscape. There are plenty of great moments with Christy making us watch the fist fight, for honour, in which his daddy died.

But the mood gradually shifts. First there is pure sunshine as PJ has a wonderful long and touching account of falling in love. "No-one has found the proper words for that..." he says, eyes radiant and newly awake. But of course, Barry does find the words.

There is a relationship with the beautiful, younger seminarian Peadar. They go to an island with ancient stones on a beautiful day, lying together in a small hollow. PJ earlier berates the fact nobody will marry them, attend their wedding.

There is another reason, and in a moment of great tragedy that seems to have occurred in an almost offhand way, we learn that PJ, on the edge of some cliffs with the beautiful man he loves, in what he describes as a moment of wickedness or "devilment", pushes him off. The horror is real, the typical Barry imagery of a falling bird screaming doesn't detract from the drama.

Then we learn, cleverly, that Christy is the boy's father. His anger is brilliantly done, via a humorous anecdote.

Barry, a born prose-poet, delivers real, if lengthy, theatre. The exposition is powerful, with another killing, and the drama tracks vengeance then redemption, forgiveness, grief and affection, with a scene full of laughter, despite the pulling power of memory, both positive and negative.

Streaming at belfastinternationalartsfestival.com

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