Newspaper article The Evening Standard (London, England)

Purgatorial Pathos in Full Bloom; ACTRESS SURPASSES HERSELF IN ATMOSPHERIC DRAMA OF GHOSTLY MEETING

Newspaper article The Evening Standard (London, England)

Purgatorial Pathos in Full Bloom; ACTRESS SURPASSES HERSELF IN ATMOSPHERIC DRAMA OF GHOSTLY MEETING

Article excerpt

Byline: NICHOLAS DE JONGH

Whistling Psyche

Almeida

NOTHING so resoundingly strange as this ghostly meeting between Claire Bloom's Florence Nightingale and Kathryn Hunter's Dr James Barry, transvestite Irish doctor and nearly lifelong male impersonator, has gripped a London stage for years. The scene in Sebastian Barry's Whistling Psyche is a deserted Victorian railway station, which with its absence of trains and services will take today's commuters no great leap of empathy to understand is likened to purgatory. Time has been held up so the dark night of the soul may run its course.

Here is designer Simon Higlett's memorable waiting room with misty views of domed station and blank platforms. Here, scarcely conscious of each other, these two lost or mislaid souls sit and prowl, recalling their famous, personally unfulfilled lives in a room whose mirrors, pictures, gold cornice, waxed flowers and grand fireplace resemble a grand drawing room. Nightingale and Hunter's startling doctor, with cropped, bald-spot head and hospital administrator's male uniform, speak their disturbed, confessional minds and historic autobiographies in long-running streams of what can only be described as posthumous, purgatorial consciousness.

The author's provocative idea is to suggest Dr Barry, who pioneered treatment for the insane, childbearing and leprous, and the Nightingale of famous memory were, in their heroic concern for victims of war, disease and prejudice spurred by their own confused identities. Their lovelessness inspired them, ironically, to become compassionate saviours of the oppressed.

Their fame survived them. No play of which I can think, though, puts more taxing demands on the minds and ears of its audiences, not to mention the memories of its two heroic actresses. Barry writes in cascades of poetic, eloquent prose and complex sentences, lyrically teeming and singing with subsidiary clauses, that often peak at more than a hundred words. …

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