Papini begins with a magic show. Or at least, a memory of one. Sitting alone on his bed, Claude relives the night he lost his twin brother Andrew, born within seventeen minutes of him. “Lost” here isn’t a metaphor for death. Andrew was quite literally lost – disappeared, in fact, at the hands of a magician named Papini.
Claude and Andrew’s story alone would be enough to fuel the 100-minute play, but writer Colm Gleeson instead uses their tale as a jumping-off point for Papini‘s three other characters: Claude’s friends Val, Mongrel and Ash, all of whom are looking to atone for their own losses as they live together in their cramped student apartment.
Papini‘s set-up is stark and minimal with two beds, three chairs and a table on stage throughout, plus a sheet acting as a projection screen. Director Colm Summers instead relies on tech and tricks of light to bring the dark magic behind Claude’s story to life: blackouts, strobing, point-of-view videos and invisible presences opening doors and crawling under duvets.
It’s a brave decision, and one that doesn’t quite land – at times, the tech sleights of hand feel like too much for a small-scale show like this one.
This is one script that would have shone just as brightly without the magic tricks, thanks mainly to the skilled cast. Eavan Gaffney in particular is a joy to behold. Her performance as Val brings a crucial element of lightness to proceedings, preventing the script from getting lost in its own despair. Even her failed attempts at self-harm are served up with a dark humour that has the audience giggling, and we root for her as she tries and fails to conquer “it” – the name she has given the darkness within her.
Grief, mental health and bodily autonomy all form core points of the plot, and yet Gleeson makes sure not to get too bogged down in issue-based talk. Papini is no political commentary. It’s a personal one. It’s an exploration of the dark places our own minds can take us, the pressure we put on ourselves to be stronger, and the way in which our own thoughts can haunt us for weeks, months or even years.
All Claude wants is for something, anything, to change the path of his past. Rather than coming to terms with Andrew’s disappearance and moving on, he relives those last moments over and over, until eventually they start to take on a life of their own.
As the debut production from Irish theatre company Felicity, Papini has been given all the attention and dedication a firstborn usually receives. The script has had rewrites and name changes since its test run in April 2016. While it hits the mark in plenty of spots, it would have benefited greatly from a little less consideration and a little more room to breathe.