Brendan Coyle is excellent in Conor McPherson’s chilling vampire monologue
From Fri Sep 21, 10 £25 ‘St Nicholas’ tickets for each of that day’s performances will be released daily at 10am via www.donmarwarehouse.com
Theatre critics weren’t formally invited to this revival of Conor McPherson’s sinister monologue about, er, a theatre critic. Staged in the tiny Donmar’s even tinier Dryden Street studio space, the opportunity to buy a ‘St Nicholas’ ticket was assigned by a random ballot. I won mine fair and square, but the thought idly drifted through my mind that the whole thing might somehow be an elaborate trap, of the sort that ensnares the play’s unnamed narrator in a nest of actual vampires.
That’s the kind of seed sown by ‘St Nicholas’: one of McPherson’s most overtly supernatural plays, given a profoundly creepy production from site-specific maestro Simon Evans and designer Peter McKintosh.
Brendan Coyle stars as the dead-on-the-inside Dublin hack. The ‘Downton Abbey’ man hasn’t been on stage in aeons, but has rather gamely returned to perform in a show where he’s perhaps no more than three metres away from any of the 30 or so audience members, scattered around the dimly lit loft space.
He is superb as somebody deeply damaged and now not all there, looking back on his life with a mix of terror, fury and defiance.
He also doesn’t beat around the bush: he tells us from the off that this is a story about vampires, even if he takes his time to work up to them after that.
Or does he? There’s no denying that ‘St Nicholas’ cheerily trades on the trope of the theatre critic as a boozy, self-loathing hack. I guess maybe it feels like a bit of a weary cliché, but I’d concede the point that criticism is inherently vampiric, subsisting off other art. And he is also an emotional vampire, consumed by a burning desire for the love – or attention – of others.
And all this paves the way for the real vampires. Smitten with an actress who he gave a poor review to, which he then lied about, he follows the production of ‘Salomé’ she is starring in to London, has a virtual mental breakdown, and is recruited by a vampire to be a sort of pimp for him and his cohort of wilder female vampires. He is charged with luring groups of drunk young people to the vampires’ lavish parties in a crumbling suburban house.
You can view this entire set up as an extended metaphor for the meaning of art and the role of the critic (are they just pimps for the vampires of Theatreland?). You could also certainly interpret it as a drama about one man’s nervous breakdown. But whatever the allegorical inference, McPherson has definitely also written a detailed, unsettling horror story, and Evans’s production emphasises the chill and tamps down the humour.
Coyle cowers behind newspaper-covered windows, frantically swigs pints of water that he scoops from an ice bucket for no obvious reason and scatters rice on the floor. Exactly what his situation currently is remains unclear; he shrugs balefully as he raises the idea that there may not have been vampires at all. But for these two spellbinding hours, of course they exist.