University College Dublin, Ireland
Director: Declan Recks Principal
Cast: Aidan Kelly, Eileen Walsh, Padraic Delaney, Enda Oates, Lesley Conroy, Karl Shiels Screenwriter: Eugene O’Brien
Producer: David Collins
Director of Photography: Owen McPolin
The admittedly hoary old chestnut of the relationship between film and theatre in Ireland has sprouted something new with Declan Recks’ Eden. Irish film took second billing to Irish theatre throughout most of the twentieth century, with many of its cinematic endeavours so inextricably linked to theatrical production to the point where it seemed impossible for the cinema to develop a sense of itself. Even Ardmore Studios was built to house adaptations of Abbey Theatre plays, and until the 1970s, it was entirely fair for Irish film to feel like little more than the unwanted bastard of literature and drama. It took Bob Quinn’s Caoineadh Airt Ui Laoire (1975) to explode and confront the clichés and suggest a cinematic vocabulary capable not only of addressing the theatrical aesthetic, but of presenting an alternative.
Eden was first produced as a play in January 2001 at the Peacock Theatre under the direction of Conor McPherson, himself guilty of no small degree of parasitic cinematic activity following initial success on stage. The play consists of intersecting monologues from two characters, a married couple living the archetypal Irish lives of quiet desperation. Billy is a deluded drunkard, an eternal ‘lad’ who perceives himself to be part of the younger crowd despite his wife and two children. He spends his weekend getting dutifully drunk while dreaming of casual sex with younger women. Eileen is (understandably) lonely and has tried to mould herself to fit his flagging desire. All the time she nurses erotic fantasies of her own and hopes her husband will eventually fulfil her desperate and powerful need for love.
In the 2001 production, actors Don Wycherley and Catherine Walsh played the only roles, telling their respective sides of the story standing in front of a simple but effective museum-style set (designed by Bláithín Sheerin) for approximately two hours. McPherson’s blocking was simple and the lighting clean and bright, facilitating the sense of character presence and emotional distance between the two actors, who never converse, although their stories interlock. As Wycherley’s Billy struggled with his inner conflict, resisting the urge to find his wife attractive because it would interfere with his self-image as a freewheeling stud, the actor had the facility to cast sidelong glances at his silent co-star, who sat frozen in her own on-stage space in a pose of intense concentration, awaiting her turn to address us.
The controlling metaphor of a concept of paradise (which gives the play its title) guides our understanding of these two people and their lack of understanding of themselves. The tone of sadness which it finally achieves has less to do with any particular resolution than it does with the sense that even resolution depends on the capacity to convince yourself of your own point of view. Many layers of psychological and emotional self-deception are plumbed in the play, and it is only as it closes that the characters have even glimpsed the truth. Though the reversal of fortune upon which the climax turns (a disastrous flirtation for him, a wild encounter for her) is predictable, this is not a work which depends heavily on its plot. The twists are predicated upon the exploration of character which in this case corresponds with the flavourful depiction of events and the environment encompassed by the storyline. The characters are the story, and O’Brien derives his anecdotes, gags, and scenes from their psychological and emotional disposition towards delusion.
The fascinating dilemma presented to any filmmaker in adapting this play is partly rooted here. Though the play is definitively verbal (built out of monologues), the dialogue is essentially internal. Though the characters report events and dialogue from their experience, they are not involved in it. They stand back from themselves in many ways and exist only inside their own heads just as the events they describe can exist only inside the heads of the audience in the theatre. In film, this could not be so.
Also in 2001, the year of the play’s production, director Kirsten Sheridan had successfully adapted Enda Walsh’s Disco Pigs (another dual monologue piece) to film even though confronted with similar problems. In Walsh’s play the monologues are more aggressive and descriptive, which gave Sheridan a greater level of exteriority with which to work, but she nonetheless successfully found visual analogues to Walsh’s pace and feints of characterisation. Sheridan explored visual symmetries in the worlds of her characters and used frantic and sudden bursts of violence to confront her audience as directly as Walsh’s words had done. Only one sequence in the film surrendered the cinematic voice to the purely theatrical, depicting Cillian Murphy’s ‘Pig’ sitting alone in his room (possibly masturbating) thinking of ‘Runt’ (Elaine Cassidy) and describing his thoughts. Even here, Sheridan at least moved the camera in on Murphy’s face, as if reflecting the sense of internalisation represented by Pig’s lustful reverie.
Declan Recks has done something similar with the film of Eden. Though O’Brien provided a new draft of his story, broadening out the action, introducing more characters to spread the monologues out between more than two individuals, the contours of the drama are much the same as in the play, as is the sense of inner reflection which pervades the work aesthetically. The characters on stage described the events from their own points of view, and both are both victims of a shared flaw in perception. Neither character sees the other very clearly, and neither fully sees themselves either. Recks builds his film around a visual dynamic which represents this sense of a misrecognised reality.
His opening shot, an emblematic scene of a tree standing alone in a field is a visual echo of the painting of a country scene around which Billy’s fantasies revolve in the play. On stage Billy dreams of sex behind a haystack depicted in the painting, and this is not a literal image. Recks must deal in the literal insofar as the profilmic image must register something. Yet the initial shot, painstakingly composed, centralised, and vibrantly coloured, seems to step out of the bounds of the real and into the symbolic. It is an image that returns to close the film. The painting itself also features, now an object across which light falls as Eileen stares into the darkness in their bedroom following an unsuccessful moment of coupling with her husband.
Recks maintains this compelling sense of shifting modes of perception throughout the film. Though there are now subsidiary characters, scenes of dialogue, and moments of literal, visual activity that are now seen rather than described, Recks takes a singular approach to all of them. As if standing back from O’Brien’s screenplay, Recks finds a space between the stage and the screen. The less interest his camera shows in literal action, the more reflective it becomes. Billy and Eileen’s encounters take on a dream-like tone, as if they too are not interested in the dialogue. The real drama is emotional and interior and can be seen rather than heard. Recks and cinematographer Owen McPolin put themselves in the position of observers observing people observing the world from a false perspective.
Throughout the film the camera tracks and moves with the system of looks and glances around which the characters’ perceptions of their world revolve, often as if disconnected from their meaning. Incidental details like a photo snapped by mobile phone or a sponge dripping soapy water on a bathtub to not have particular physical meaning, but become part of a perceptual armoury of incidental detail in a world barely inhabited by these reflective fantasists. Even when Billy or Eileen are in company, they seem alone, often framed at the centre of the 2.35:1 frame and surrounded by space, like the emblematic tree. The camera drifts, the frame shifting in its rectangular composition, and attains the quality of a drifting eye, another level of viewing and watching somewhere between Recks, McPolin, and the audience.
The film does feature a number of ‘monologue’ scenes that are forced to revisit the Disco Pigs dilemma, but again here, as with Sheridan, the camera is not permitted to remain completely still. Because O’Brien has usually provided a secondary character with whom his leads can interact, Recks gives us semicircular tracking shots moving in opposite directions. This creates visual conflict again reinforcing the sense that points of view can be in conflict and unreliable. Sometimes such scenes give way to images of the leads themselves, seemingly divorced entirely from what is being said either by themselves or those they are with, and this again shifts the audience from the word to the image in a surprising and effective way.
A range of long shots and mid shots in the early scenes give way to the intense close-ups with which the film concludes. As the characters finally confront one another in a way they never did on stage, the camera moves in on them as if unable to draw it gaze from them. This intensity of scrutiny falls now upon the faces of Aidan Kelly as Billy and Eileen Walsh (sister of Catherine from the original production), and the catharsis which it brings is a much to do with a visual damburst of facial expression as anything textual or spoken. Here Recks again provides a staging space that is at once ‘theatrical’ and ‘cinematic’, and the sense of dreamlike drift has given way to an intensity of photographic analysis that requires a visual reading. This is a wholly remarkable achievement, successfully navigating the parallel but separate worlds of the dramatic text in performance and the drama of the image. In contrast to, for example, Conor McPherson’s own efforts as a director, especially Saltwater (2000) (based on the monologue piece This Lime Tree Bower), the film has a sense of cinema beyond the aged horror of the ‘filmed play’.