The monologue form has always been prevalent in Irish theatre since the early 1990s. This is a form of theatre in which a single performer stands in front of the audience and tells their story. In keeping with this tradition, the set of Sea Wall is minimalist but effective – a simple wall with a window gives the impression of a continental seaside house. This is the setting for Simon Stephens’ Sea Wall, performed by Emmet Farrell and directed by Seán Butler for UCD’s DramSoc.
At the core of the story is the sense of what we do not know. Throughout the piece, the question of God re-emerges but never finds a conclusion. The main character of Alex, portrayed by Farrell, regales the audience with the story of his family, his daughter Lucy and his wife, Helen, and their trips to his father-in-law, Arthur’s home in the south of France that the family visits each and every summer. Initially humorous and conversational, Farrell brings a style of storytelling, reminiscent of stand up comedy, inviting the audience to remember with him the lives of the people around him. From this he launches into a personal portrayal of family and loss. The audience is complicit with Alex in their sense of loss, both physical and metaphysical. We do not know what he has lost but there is a sense throughout that Alex cannot quite understand it either.
Farrell’s performance is magnificent. Throughout the tidy forty-minute show, Farrell is able, first to win over the audience, and then immerse them into his world. It is difficult to time the silences that are rife throughout the piece, and sometimes it feels as though that timing has not been nailed down, but as the week progresses and Farrell gains his feet in the production, there is no doubt that he will find the perfect balance. The disarming quality of the monologue is in the single point of view through which the world is explored, leaving Alex’s retelling incomplete, lacking the nuance another point of view can bring. However, Farrell manages very quickly to push past this and comfort the audience before tackling the more intricate ideas explored in the piece. For this reason, the work of the playwright Simon Stephens must also be acknowledged. The audience throughout the piece feels as though Alex is juggling a number of plotlines and ideas, none of which were lost at any moment. The script is tight and well thought out, exploring the narrative and metaphysical side of the play without losing the audience to either.
The ‘sea wall’ after which the play is named, refers to Alex’s journey with his father-in-law to the sea wall that lies on the floor of the ocean. It is here that Alex makes the realisation that he never knew of this world. He presumed the sea slowly sloped towards the depths, that it didn’t drop off immediately at some point as he observes. This serves as a just metaphor for the piece as a whole. Throughout the piece Alex mentions, “just because we don’t know now, doesn’t mean we will never know”. This is initially in reference to the existence of God, but quickly becomes relevant to the depth of human experience also. What is known and said in this piece is equally important to that which is unknown and unsaid. The silences fill the space almost as much as the words do.
Through this exploration, the warm lighting against the walls that frame Alex go from feeling as though they offer comfort, to cold and claustrophobic. The audience walk in on Alex caught in this space and there is a sense throughout the piece that perhaps he cannot escape it. Through his unknowing, Alex gets lost and is forced to focus on what he knows: memories. To this end, the play and performance does an excellent job of bringing the audience through Alex’s experiences in a way that disarms, but does not alienate. When the ending arrives, the audience is almost forced to wonder why Alex was waiting for them in the first place.
Butler and Farrell do an excellent job of bringing to life Stephens’ script in a way that engages and challenges an audience. Though the questions raised are far from answered, both Alex and the audience feel at the end that perhaps there is a possibility that eventually they will.