It is important to state at the outset that the Arachnophilia is perfectly safe for any Arachnophobes. Contains spoilers.
It is difficult to do justice to Arachnophilia. At times, It is laugh out loud funny, it has a serious spine running through the whole play and ends with the death of arguably the main character. That is without even getting into the slightly absurd nature of the play.
Yet, to sum it up as such would be to leave out so much. Let’s start with the setting and set. The New Theatre is a small and, as it’s name suggests, new theatre on Essex Street in the heart of Temple Bar. There was a couple of free seats for the performance which I attended but it would be fair to describe the theatre as packed.
On walking into the auditorium you were met with a curtain free set. Reclining on a chaise lounge was a character which you might fairly assume was the main character. As the play starts, the character who we had been staring at for the previous few minutes was replaced at the fore by Conor (played by Harry Butler) and Alice (played by Meg Healy).
[perfectpullquote align=”full” bordertop=”false” cite=”” link=”” color=”#6653ff” class=”” size=””]Listen to Meg Healy play Personality Bingo with Tom Moran below[/perfectpullquote]
Suddenly, the audience’s expectations are subverted. I was expecting a play about spiders. And here we were thrown straight into the relationship of Conor and Alice. On the face of it we are looking at an average young couple. However, that is all about to change.
Conor has a surprise for Alice. At this stage the audience were one step ahead of Alice. Her bemusement on discovering that her boyfriend had bought her a tarantula was pretty complete. Discovering that it was intended to prepare them for having a baby makes things even worse.
Over the next 70 minutes we trace this relationship. Alice tries to bring Conor back from the brink but it is met on each occasion by an increasingly obsessed Conor. On one occasion when she is invited over to the apartment she reluctantly agrees to help Conor with some interview questions but just as they are about to get started an alarm sounds which reminds Conor that it is feeding time.
It is feeding time for Bellhop, the spider. It is at this point that we realise that there are lots of relationships which we need to keep an eye. Bizarrely enough the relationship between Conor and Bellhop is very important. As is the relationship between Bellhop and Exoskeleton. The relationship between Conor and Alice probably comes in a close third in importance.
Now, if I told you that Bellhop becomes not only the main character but the one with the most lines you might stop and wonder what I am talking about. The Spider? Bear with me.
While Bellhop remains within his cage for the duration of the play, he, or is it she (played brilliantly by Ian Dunphy) and in tandem with Exoskeleton (Bellhop’s Exoskeleton played by Caoimhe Mulcahy). This conceit may seem a bit far fetched but it works very well and at no point did I find this difficult to believe. Bellhop’s dinner consists of Grasshoppers. Talking grasshoppers at that, but once again it works.
The creation of a space which can accommodate so much is one of the most amazing achievements of the director (Sarah Bradley) who creates a brilliant mise-en-scene. On one side of the stage we have the humans (Conor and Alice) whereas on the other side we have the arachnids Bellhop and Exoskeleton and for a brief couple of minutes a Grasshopper.
This adds a touch of the absurd but it is so well done that it is not questioned for a moment and serious credit must go to the director for having the confidence to trust with such a simple approach. The costume design is also to be commended. Although it is simple, it is highly effective. Both Bellhop and Exoskeleton wear the same pinstriped pants and matching shirts.
There are two critical moments in Arachnophilia. The first comes right at the start when Alice is brought blindfolded into the house by Conor. There is a present waiting for her and it is safe to say Alice is not expecting what is to come. Her surprise turns to anger as she storms out telling Conor that their relationship is over.
‘I don’t want to be with anyone who thinks that a spider is a fitting gift’ Alice tells Conor (and our sympathies are with Alice who, we are told, has a fear of spiders.
‘But, you bought me that skydive last year so I could confront my fear of heights’ pleads Conor.
Poor Conor. He just doesn’t get it.
The second critical moment comes when Bellhop discovers that she is actually a he!
“How could you not know?” asks Exoskeleton.
[perfectpullquote align=”full” bordertop=”false” cite=”” link=”” color=”” class=”” size=””]Assistant Director of Arachnophilia, Nessa Matthews plays Personality Bingo with Tom Moran[/perfectpullquote]
The discovery changes Bellhops life rather more dramatically than you might imagine. Female Chilean Rose Tarantulas have a life expectancy of twenty years whereas the male variety live for only a fraction of this time.
On discovering that he only has a few weeks to live Bellhop suddenly finds a new found love for his surroundings and for his life. What had seemed boring was now something to be missed. The play not only entertains but it also poses some deep questions about the nature of obsession and even the meaning of life. The fact that Exoskeleton is played by Caoimhe Mulcahy questions the very nature of gender.
‘How could you not know?’ This is a question that is posed and is one of the aspects of the play which goes right into the heart of questions about what is gender. Is it constructed or is it given at birth.
Religion is also challenged.
‘I am a God’ exclaims Bellhop to Exoskeleton at one point because ‘I created you’. The truth of this is clear from the start but it is something that bellhop never quite grasps fully, even to the point of banishing Exoskeleton. How many of us would not rather look at ourselves in the mirror at times?
It would appear that Spiders too create Gods in their own likeness. One other common feature between the human and spider worlds is that the female of the species is certainly more clever than the male.
To sum up. I was not sure what to expect when entering The New Theatre. By the time I left I was not only impressed with the theatre and set design but captivated by a brilliant production of an excellent play. The acting is also to be commended and the rapport between Bellhop and Exoskeleton was excellent.
In the end, Arachnophilia is well worth seeing whether you want to be entertained for 70 minutes or if you want to delve deeper into the absurdities of human nature through the eyes of a spider and his exoskeleton.
Duration 70 minutes (without interval)
Conor: Harry Butler
Alice: Meg Healy
Bellhop: Ian Dunphy
Exoskeleton: Caoimhe Mulcahy
First Grasshopper: Voice by Caoimhe Mulcahy
Second Grasshopper: Voiced by Meg Healy
Set Design: Anna Orton
Costume Design: Alisa Kalyanova
Writer: Aidan Fitzmaurice
Director: Sarah Bradley
Assistant Director: Nessa Matthews