Friday, 27 September 2013


A comic, enlightening and hugely satisfying exploration of a famous Derry-Londonderry playwright

A soothingly downbeat cello melody is faintly heard as the audience search for their seats in Derry-Londonderry's Waterside Theatre. To the right of a large, fully draped white curtain in the centre of a rustic and minimalist set sits a washerwoman at work, with only the slightest flicker of candlelight to help. She appears so annoyed by the lack of light and atmosphere in her setting that she immediately resorts to taking a swig of ale from the mug beside her. Or perhaps she just needs a break.

The "washerwoman" in question is actually actress Kate O'Rourke, getting into character as Mistress Kempe, the active, buxom landlady of truly LegenDerry playwright George Farquhar. For the uninitiated, Farquhar is one of the best known and loved playwrights to come from the island of Ireland, his invaluable contributions to restoration comedy having endured for over three centuries.

By Mr Farquhar, written by Lindsay Sedgwick and directed by Caroline Byrne, is one of a series of theatrical events from Jonathan Burgess's Blue Eagle Theatre Company dedicated to celebrating the life and work of the famous playwright over a two week period.

The play is set in 1706, shortly before Farquhar's death. When we first see Farquhar, played with deceptively sly apathy by local actor and Farquhar fanatic Stephen Bradley, he wears an unsettling smirk that suggests he is not to be taken at face value. His ragged clothing and hangdog face suggest an almost stereotypical image of the struggling playwright, a man who is not basking in glory from the inspiration his plays are giving to early eighteenth century Londoners.

Feeling like "an animal of immense and hairy proportions", his self-pitying soliloquies to the audience depict the depression he allegedly feels over both estrangement from his wife and daughters and the struggle to finish his final play. Or is he hoodwinking us? For on one hand, he thinks the working title of his "comic masterpiece" literally "stinks" and briefly holds up a quill with a shrug, as if to say "why bother"? But on the other hand, there are moments where he joyfully sings and boasts about successfully completed the outline of the play. Bradley's depiction of Farquhar's varying moods make for great comic value, but initially, it is hard to care very much about the man.

Enter landlady and Mrs. Lovett soundalike Mistress Kempe, and the immediate fear that these two will have a Sweeney Todd dynamic, with the lady's love for the man inspiring him to continue and/or finish his work against the odds. Thankfully, By Mr Farquhar is no Shakespeare In Love. Here, Farquhar's inspiration comes not merely from the lady herself, but from absolutely everything that happens both in and around him during the remainder of the play.

O'Rourke plays Kempe as a tough nut to crack. She is the sort who will not be condescended to, despite being made to wait on Farquhar at every opportunity. In other words, she is a heavyweight of a presence, but to Farquhar, is she a paperweight, a makeweight or a weight on his shoulder? This is explored compellingly through the depiction of Kempe's role as a servant and as both an ear and an aid for the playwright's words.

By now, the play is freely alternating between Farquharian monologue and periodical dialogue between the two cast members, showing the male "hero" up as a desperately determined writer who seems no longer able to draw the line between theatre and real life in his work. He discusses what being in an auditorium feels like. He references Shakespeare and, in a rather anachronistic turn, Billy Joel ("And so it goes..."). He talks to Kempe about the possibility of getting closer to her, but, being married, she angrily knocks him back. He even goes as far as putting his feet in a pot of urine in what feels squirm-worthy to us, but enlightening to him.

Even more enlightening, for both Farquhar and the audience, is the Derry bard’s realization that he has "put too much of himself" into the play, according to Kempe. For the first time, she cracks a pleasant smile. And so do we, knowing that Farquhar will have to dig a little deeper to finish his "masterpiece". It is how he does it that enthralls us.

One still does not quite sympathize fully with him over the loss of his father and mother, as Bradley's portrayal and the tone of the play have been a little too laid back up to this point. But the lessons he learns, about heritage, marriage and parenthood, are appreciated. By reminiscing, and confiding in Kempe, he reawakens to his significance as a playwright and as a responsible parent. As he carves a doll for one of his daughters, and the strains of "Danny Boy" are heard offstage, The Beaux' Stratagem is born.

And, as the playwright falls victim to tuberculosis and is forced to fight even harder to finish his play (a telling reminder of how working so hard can ruin one's health), a genuinely caring bond between Farquhar and Kempe finally envelops. Bradley and O'Rourke work extremely hard to convey the strengthening emotions they feel both towards their work and one another.

By Mr Farquhar
ends on a hugely satisfying note, with the playwright apparently letting his demons rest, acknowledging his inspirations, and leaving to enjoy the finished production and possibly a drink with his landlady. One might argue that it is a cheat to at last fully connect with Farquhar and Kempe just as they are leaving the stage, but it is actually the perfect ending to the play. For we have liked them all along; it just took ninety minutes for us to discover their emotional warmth. And perhaps that, in itself, is the central appeal of Farquhar's writing.

By Mr Farquhar is running at Derry-Londonderry's Waterside Theatre until Saturday September 29 as part of Blue Eagle's George Farquhar Theatre Festival.