Don’t be misled by the black-clad presence of the ever-androgynous Kathryn Hunter in “Whistling Psyche,” the Sebastian Barry script — one hesitates to call it a play — now being enacted at the Almeida Theater. If ever there were a text in need of a red pencil, this is the one, and no amount of sexually indeterminate intrigue from the formidable, always watchable Hunter will prove otherwise. Auds may flock, drawn by the promise of a lofty-sounding enterprise that includes an alternately wispy and haggard Claire Bloom marking her third Almeida stand. But, not for the first time, Barry is so busy asserting himself as some sort of wildly overripe poet that he has forgotten to write a play. By the time Hunter’s gravel-voiced Dr. Barry, the playwright’s namesake, comes to the conclusion “all things shall pass” — “history” and “sparrows” (there’s an odd combination) included — you may find yourself wishing this play would join them.
That’s by no means to deny the seriousness of an enterprise that might be far less of an endurance test if it allowed itself a dollop of camp. Instead, “Whistling Psyche” unfolds on a sepulchrally lit (by Tim Mitchell) stage that defies what scant attempts at animation are proffered by director Robert Delamere, who will get another go next season at the Almeida with, one hopes, a considerably more pliable script. It’s not the monologue-driven nature of this piece — virtually an Irish given by this point (cf. “The Weir’s” Conor McPherson) — that stops the show in its tracks, but the ceaseless barrage of writing so fruity that you practically drown in pulp. Sample sentence: “For how soon it is we lose the wings of childhood and begin to stand shriven and cold in the alleyways of the earth with wingless backs.” Whew!
Barry’s best play, “The Steward of Christendom” (1995), tipped toward the overwritten but was redeemed by a tough-mindedness that began with its star, the late and legendary Donal McCann. Not here. Playing two sad and solitary souls who carved out a place in history while remaining in some essential way lost to themselves, Hunter and Bloom can’t surmount the tide of verbiage that pulls the evening out to sea, a tone poem that would seem all but impossible to tune.
Hunter’s Dr. Barry is certainly the more fascinating creation: a scuttling, thinning-haired, diminutive creature of the night who could have stepped out of one of the more extreme Gothic novels already in circulation by the Victorian times during which the play is set. A contemporary of Florence Nightingale, the lesser-known James Miranda Barry (no relation to “Peter Pan” scribe James Matthew Barrie) was the army surgeon and forward-thinking medic whose true gender was revealed only posthumously. How did s/he sustain the subterfuge across the years (Barry died in 1865, age 70)? By turning any deeply felt inadequacies of the self into a life now celebrated for its devotion toward others — “he” was apparently called to Napoleon’s deathbed but got there too late.
“Whistling Psyche,” though, is less concerned with the ladies’ public posture than it is in a thoroughgoing psychological inventory that lays both women bare: In one instance, almost literally so during a closing sanctification that doesn’t begin to compare with that rending absolution at the end of “Steward.” Dr. Barry ends up confronting the “hollow victory” of an itinerant career rife with achievement — “his” primary companion on life’s journey seems to have been one or another of numerous poodles, all named Psyche — that was nonetheless almost wholly lacking in love: “the desperate celebrator of an imprisoned soul.”
Not to be left out, Nightingale thinks of herself “just as lost, into the bargain: in the small hours, extinguished at last, like a speck of ash in the cold grate.” The two tread warily around each other like equivalents to the abject discards given a voice by Beckett, without the blessing of the springy and elegant language that lets Beckett sing.
Simon Higlett’s design turns the rough-hewn Almeida stage into the murky waiting room of a Victorian train station, the occasional footage of rolling stock (Jon Driscoll is the projection designer) suggesting that, between this play and David Hare’s railway-themed “The Permanent Way,” trains tend to arrive with far greater regularity on the London stage than they do in modern British life.