Conor McPherson’s new play The Veil is set in the 1820s, an often-neglected period of Irish history – not because there wasn’t much going on, but because there was so much going on the rest of the time. But the seeds of later problems were sown around this time and though Lady Madeleine Pembroke (Fenella Woolgar) still lives in the big house and owns the land the locals rent from her, there’s hints that the common Irish people are no longer happy with the way things are. Estate manager Mr Fingal (Peter McDonald) is shunned by the rest of his family because he remains loyal; in fact he’s in love with Madeleine and sticks around despite the fact she’s not had the money to pay him for the last 14 months. Marrying off her daughter Hannah (Emily Taaffe) looks like it might solve the financial problems at least, so Madeleine’s cousin Berkeley (Jim Norton) and his housemate Audelle (Adrian Schiller) come round to take Hannah to England and the future husband she’s barely exchanged two words with. But they have an ulterior motive: Berkeley is a vicar, Audelle a laudanum-addicted “philosopher” and they intend to find out if, as they suspect, the ghost of Hannah’s father haunts the room where he hanged himself.
It’s a strange mix, it feels like there’s a political allegory in there but McPherson (who also directs) also toys with making it into a proper ghost story, and the climax is pure soap opera. It’s intermittently very entertaining, though at other times the fact that you’re never quite sure where it’s going makes it drag. But one surprising thing, given the dark subject matter, is how funny it is. There’s a lot of very prim, understated digs at each other, the best coming from Norton and his character’s little references to Audelle’s alcoholism. (“He’s just taking some brandy for a cold he’s had for the last year and a half” and, when his housemate enters the room just as the bottles are opened, “your nose for impending hospitality remains as keen as ever.”) Ursula Jones as the elderly Grandie, dangling a toy sheep by the neck and getting excited anytyime someone mentions cake, gives great comic value as well. The visuals are gorgeous, Rae Smith’s decayed grand hall is a signature Lyttelton design with hints of the rest of the house off to the wings, and when the play works, it really works, with an atmospheric séance scene, and Fingal’s drunken revelations among the best setpieces; but there’s a sense of “what on earth was that?” to the play as a whole.
The Veil by Conor McPherson is in repertory until the 11th of December at the National Theatre’s Lyttelton.