It’s not often that I’m rendered speechless (as many will attest) but Owen O’Neill’s astonishing monologue which makes up the 75-minute one-man play, Absolution, at London’s Park Theatre, left me agog. Whoa! I never saw that coming!
These days it is rare for a story or performance to truly shock. We’ve seen it all before – haven’t we?
Well, no. Absolution, written and performed by O’Neill, is visceral, disturbing and profoundly unnerving, a story of one man’s revenge on the sexual abuse by Ireland’s Catholic priests and the collective guilt of whole communities which cover it up.
This masterpiece of storytelling is the first in a double bill of solo plays boldly directed by Guy Masterson. The second, Bill Clinton Hercules, couldn’t be more different yet both deal with common themes of the abuse of power, justice, conspiracy and complicity.
Absolution is harrowing. It opens to the sounds of a mournful Johnny Cash. O’Neill, dressed in vest and trousers, is exercising in a small spartan room before he turns to us and, as he slowly dresses for the day, relates a story that chills to the bone.
Over the next hour or so we listen, utterly engrossed, as a dead-eyed and damaged man describes his crusade to impart his own brand of justice on the men who destroyed his innocence.
Court cases seem to emerge every week about priests who defiled and wrecked young lives, only to have their abhorrent crimes covered up by the church and, in many cases, the families and communities in which the clergy served.
It’s impossible not to be moved by the raw intensity of the material which is told in a simmering rage that occasionally boils over into hard physical violence. There are flashes of black gallows humour and one of the lighter moments in this dark and troubling tale finds the vigilante dangling over a well after a victim almost drags him down to hell.
Bill Clinton Hercules sees the former US president drop by to deliver a speech about his life, influences, his battle against dark forces within his party and government, his campaign to get his wife Hillary elected as his country’s first woman president and, of course, Monica.
The real Bill Clinton charges up to $750,000 for a single public speaking engagement. The Park Theatre, I’m guessing, gets charismatic US actor Bob Paisley for considerably less, but he is just as engaging.
“It’s great to be in Finsbury Park,” he says. “One of Mr Trump’s no-go areas!” (Playwright Rachel Mariner and/ or Masterson adding a few up-to-the-minute ad-libs).
The title comes from The Cure at Troy by Irish poet, Seamus Heaney, which became a bit of a Bible for the charming country boy from Hope, Arkansas, who found himself in charge of the world’s most powerful nation (though I’m baffled why a Roman god, Hercules, is mentioned in a story about Greek gods – but what do I know?).
Paisley nails Clinton’s attractive accent and easy going charm. He prowls around his sparse set, occasionally sitting in its leather armchair, frequently buttoning and un-buttoning his jacket, shaking hands with audience members in the front row and talking.
Boy, can he talk. There are a few very minor first-night stumbles from Paisley but I’m full of admiration for an actor who can deliver a 65-minute monologue that is packed with wordier dialogue than West Wing or Spacey’s House of Cards.
You have to have a bit of knowledge of American politics as “Clinton” frequently throws out first names of governors, senators and White House power-brokers. He talks about his mediation successes, how he turned from “bearded hippy Bill” who preached peace as an Oxford Rhodes Scholar to Commander-in-Chief Bill who bombed the hell out of Belgrade.
It’s all fascinating, revelatory and authentic, delivered with a style and largesse that is both entertaining and informative. You feel like you’re being given the inside track on the machinations of government and his personal life – but all the time having to remember that Mariner’s work is “inspired by” and “factional,” a bastardised tale that expertly blends fact with fiction.
Riveting stuff but, for me, Absolution gets my vote.
Absolution and Bill Clinton Hercules runs at Park Theatre until June 11.
Bill Clinton Hercules
Absolution & Bill Clinton Hercules, a double bill of solo-plays, tackling abuse of power & justice that are harrowing, disturbing, revelationary and riveting.