A young English playwright called William and two of his English friends, who are actors, are visiting Ireland in a hope to introduce theatre to the natives. However this is troubled times with the Irish fighting the English over the land. When the three men are attacked, William, who was taken ill during the voyage, manages to escape by falling into a lake. However, an English poet called Edmond who lives in a castle with his wife Elizabeth and two children help him back to health. Meanwhile William's two friends are captured and are at the mercy of the dispossessed King Sweney, who is going senile, and Queen Maeve, who along with their children are fighting to reclaim back their land. Also, the King's daughter, The File, who is also the servant of Edmund's, believes that William is the man who has been sent by the Gods to help put her father back in power, because she had previously prophesied that "the man from the lake would save Ireland."
This is a very complicated drama that is based on a true period in Irish history, but the characters and scenes are fantasy. For example, 'William' is suggested in the play to be William Shakespeare, who meets the Elizabethan poet Edmond Spencer. This does provide a few laughs, but unfortunately, it is a dull play lacking both plot and meaning. Also there is so much singing in the play that it verges on being a musical!
The acting by the whole company is adequate given the difficult task of performing in a dreary play. Anton Lesser (recently in Art at the Wyndham's) who plays 'William' puts in a fine performance. So too does Aisling O'Sullivan (recently in 'A Cripple of Inishmaan) who plays 'The File'. However, Diane Hardcastle's talent is wasted playing Edmund's wife, Elizabeth, a character that lacks depth.
The stage design by Monica Frawley is realistic, depicting a rocky forestland on one side of the stage and a castle on the other, with a water hole in the middle. As the Cottesloe is a small theatre and the seats being placed around the stage it all felt very authentic, particularly with the campfire burning.
The reviews from the popular press were not too good. NICHOLAS DE JONGH of THE EVENING STANDARD says, director Trevor Nunn's production "goes in for Florid declamation which strikes me as oddly old fashioned, and not to this odd play's advantage." KATE STRATTON of TIME OUT says "McGuinness provides elegant mirror images of English assurance and Irish diffidence and a web of thought provoking ideas about artistic responsibility." ANDREW ALDRIDGE of THE STAGE found the play dull; saying the set design "leaves a stronger impression than what happens on it". BILL HAGERTY of THE NEWS OF THE WORLD said all the cast try hard "but the evening remains wet". JOHN PETER of THE SUNDAY TIMES says, "Trevor Nunn's direction performs near-miracles with a text that is eventful but essentially static." Lasting three hours this is a play that needs an urgent hatchet job to cut is down to about one and half hours. Only then will it probably be worth seeing again.