Review: The Veil, National Theatre Lyttelton

Emily Taaffe (Hannah) and Ursula Jones (Grandie). Photo: Alastair Muir.


I was fortunate to be invited to see this, during preview week, by a friend who got two tickets for seats with good views. Written and directed by Conor McPherson, this play is set in 1821 and involves an impoverished aristocratic family where Lady Madeline (Fenella Woolgar) wants her seventeen year old daughter Hannah (Emily Taafe) to marry a marquess in England in order to pay off the estate’s debts. Their house – a foreboding, crumbling mansion wonderfully designed by Rae Smith with lovely details, including staircase and hallway on the right of the stage – is haunted; Lady Madeline’s husband committed suicide and Hannah ‘hears voices’.

There are strong Chekhovian echoes here: the play starts and develops slowly; an estate manager goes a bit wild with a gun; changing of times as once rich aristocratic families find themselves laden with huge debts; unrequited love; and the arrival of visitors unveils the family’s hidden secrets and desires. The play also resonates with contemporary times in Ireland and Europe – crippling debts reducing once rich and proud nations to accepting handouts from others on certain terms and conditions. Lady Madeline knows only too well what being in a loveless marriage means but, however unpalatable it may be, it’s the only escape route for both mother and daughter.

Despite all of these, I found it difficult to be fully engaged with the play or any of its characters. The cast work hard to deliver their lines but there is something missing to gel these lines into one unit. I felt a little sympathy for Hannah but, aside from that, I was agnostic towards the other characters. And I am still unsure why we have Lady Madeline’s grandmother, Grandie (Ursula Jones) in the play. Grandie is senile, quiet and not seen without her stuff toy. But unlike the vital role and presence of the senile grandmother in Bernarda Alba (which I saw recently), Grandie is merely an observer for most of the play except in the final scene where she briefly alludes to a man whom she might have loved but didn’t marry. One particular character development – that of the estate manager Mr Fingal (Peter McDonald) – is unconvincing. The man we meet in the final scene is not the same man we’ve met before. I can only guess that Mr Fingal must have been nicking some of the laudanum in between which, by the way, is ‘self medication’ for one of the visitors.

As a ghost story, this play disappoints. It is atmospheric and there is an allusion to Jane Eyre but it isn’t spooky. I am still not sure if ghosts in this play represent the past or the future. Judging by the programme, there must be references to 18th century Germany philosophy and metaphysics but, unless you are an aficionado in these matters, you will miss these.

Overall, this play demands a lot of work and concentration from its audience to really get under its skin. I won’t recommend seeing this play after a long day at work or with hangovers. That said, I feel that I need to see it a second time, if only to get all the stuff I missed out on my first visit.

★★☆☆☆
The Veil runs until 11 December. Performance time, at the time of writing, is 2 hours and 45 minutes with an interval. Tickets are available at the box office or call 020 7452 3000.

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About manipillai

Oh, just a few of my thoughts on theatre.
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