The two leading male characters of Gates of Gold, Frank McGuinness's new play for Dublin's Gate Theatre, are called Gabriel and Conrad; and, if you take them simply as such, the play works very well indeed. It happens, however, that they are closely "inspired" by the two men who founded the Gate in 1928, the legendary thesps Hilton Edwards and Micheál MacLiammóir, and this makes the play a marvellous tribute to theatre history and to Dublin history.
What's touching about Gates of Gold is that it shows both the flamboyant lifestyle and the tender hearts that beat beneath: hearts that beat for love, for each other, for fantasy, and for theatre.
This is a deathbed play. That Gabriel is close to death is evident from Conrad's opening-scene interview with the prospective nurse, Alma. It's by no means just about the Gabriel-Conrad relationship; Gabriel's sister Kassie and nephew Ryan are both vivid personalities here, and Alma's relationship with Gabriel - nurse and patient, toughie and toughie, sharing past lives, he, while dying, helping to cure her - becomes the most complex element in the play.
McGuinness sometimes sketches in important plot elements too briskly: at the end, I could not have passed an examination about Alma's past or Kassie's husband as well as I would have liked. But we can't miss the gist: the larger emotions that transcend specific events.
The play's humour is never long absent, least of all from the continual in-fighting between Gabriel and Conrad. Gabriel, grandly: "Has there ever been a man I hated more than you?" Conrad, coolly: "Your wigmaker?" It's perfectly timed: we had been wondering about Gabriel's coiffure. Camp remarks - about climbing the Matterhorn in high heels, for example - abound, and so does a tougher vein of humour. I find many deathbed scenes perfectly resistable, but this deathbed play enthralled me, not least because it showed so many attitudes to death, and not only to Gabriel's approaching death. Gabriel himself runs quite a gamut of feeling about it, but his final scene with Conrad, original, theatrical and fantasy-seeking to the last, is tenderness itself.
All five roles are gifts to actors, and, as directed by Patrick Mason, all five rise beautifully to their challenge. Richard Johnson, who can be too low-key and tepid, plays Conrad with nicely judged gravity; James Kennedy's anger and vulnerability as Ryan are very telling; Donna Dent's blend of hardness and softness, of feeling and feistiness, are perfect for Alma. Rosaleen Linehan, an actor of whom I can't see enough, makes Kassie as memorable and fantastic as her brother Gabriel. Alan Howard, as actorly an actor as we have today, finds in Gabriel a perfect vehicle for his sometimes baroque flights of vocal technique; his large imagination and wry humour are never in doubt for a moment. Joe Vanek's designs are exquisite. This is one of McGuinness's finest plays. Curiously, though his ear for both English and Irish voices is pitch-perfect here, he often here reminds me of Tennessee Williams, one of the modern playwrights I love most: the characters' need of fantasy, their dangerous humour, their lyrical recollections of past experience. There is something gorgeous about it.
The Financial Times, 8.5.02.