×

Whistling Psyche

Don't be misled by the black-clad presence of the ever-androgynous Kathryn Hunter in "Whistling Psyche," the Sebastian Barry script now being enacted at the Almeida Theater. Auds may flock, drawn by the promise of a lofty-sounding enterprise that includes Claire Bloom marking her third Almeida stand.

With:
Dr. Barry - Kathryn Hunter Miss Nightingale - Claire Bloom

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.

Whistling Psyche

Almeida Theater, London; 321 Seats; £27.50 ($49) Top

Production: An Almeida Theater presentation of a play in one act by Sebastian Barry. Directed by Robert Delamere.

Creative: Sets and costumes, Simon Higlett; lighting, Tim Mitchell; music, Ross Lorraine; sound, John Leonard; projection design, Jon Driscoll; film editor, Richard Overall. Opened, reviewed May 12, 2004. Running time: 1 HOUR, 50 MIN.

Cast: Dr. Barry - Kathryn Hunter Miss Nightingale - Claire Bloom

More Legit

  • Moulin Rouge Broadway

    Listen: The Special Sauce in Broadway's 'Moulin Rouge!'

    There are songs in the new Broadway version of “Moulin Rouge!” that weren’t in Baz Luhrmann’s hit movie — but you probably know them anyway. They’re popular tunes by superstars like Beyoncé, Adele and Rihanna, released after the 2001 movie came out, and they’ll probably unleash a flood of memories and associations in every audience [...]

  • Greta Gerwig and Oscar Isaac

    Greta Gerwig and Oscar Isaac to Star in Anton Chekhov's 'Three Sisters' Adaptation

    Greta Gerwig and Oscar Isaac are taking on an adaptation of Anton Chekhov’s “Three Sisters” for New York Theatre Workshop in Manhattan. The company announced on Tuesday that they will feature two final performances to round out the 2019 to 2020 season, including the Chekhov play. “Three Sisters” will be directed by Tony award-winning Sam [...]

  • montreal just for laughs Comedy Festival

    Montreal's Just for Laughs Festival Is the 'Coachella of Comedy'

    Every summer, Montreal becomes the epicenter of the comedy world as the Just for Laughs Comedy Festival takes over the Canadian city. Now in its 37th year, the mindboggling scale of the festival is there in the numbers: more than 1,600 artists from across the globe (speaking English, French and other languages) performing 250 shows [...]

  • The dark Manhatten skyline, seen from

    StubHub Refunds $500,000 to Customers Shut Out by New York Blackout

    Saturday’s blackout in New York had an outsized effect on the city’s nightlife, with Madison Square Garden and the entire Broadway district seeing multiple shows cancelled due to the the power outage. As a result, StubHub has refunded more than $500,000 worth of tickets for cancelled events. According to a statement from the company, the StubHub [...]

  • Warner Music Group Logo

    Warner Music Acquires Musical Theater Indie First Night Records

    Warner Music Group has acquired First Night Record, an independent record label for West End and Broadway musical theatre cast recordings. The company will be overseen by WMG’s Arts Music Division, led by President Kevin Gore. First Night co-founder John Craig will join the Arts Music team under a multi-year consulting agreement to identify and record musical theatre productions in [...]

  • Broadway

    Broadway Back In Biz After Power Outage Ends

    The bright lights of Broadway were back on Sunday morning as midtown Manhattan recovered from a power outage that lasted nearly seven hours in some areas. Social media was full of examples of how New Yorkers rose to the occasion after the power went out on a hot Saturday night shortly before 7 p.m. ET. [...]

More From Our Brands

Access exclusive content