Old Fitz Theatre, March 15


Andre de Vanny. Photo: Robert Catto

In the late-night 9.30pm time slot at the Old Fitz Theatre in Woolloomooloo, Andre de Vanny is performing Connor McDermottroe’s solo show Swansong. Returning after a brief season in the same venue at the end of last year, it’s a sterling performance that is very much worth catching.

McDermottroe is an Irish actor, writer and director, who lived in Australia for 10 years in the 1980s after coming to the Sydney Festival with the Druid Theatre Company. Swansong is set mainly in his native Sligo and centres on a troubled, violent misfit called Occi Byrne, the illegitimate child of a single mother in the Catholic West of Ireland whose life has been lived on the margins for as long as he can remember.

Occi suspects that an unfortunate but typically rash, barrel-rolling incident as a child may have shaken his head a bit loose. Be that as it may, he is full of uncontrollable rage that can bubble over in an instant. One particular piece of name-calling is guaranteed to get him really riled and then look out. At the same time, he has a poet’s eye as well as a keen sense of self-awareness and can spin an eloquent, compelling yarn.

It’s similar terrain to Enda Walsh’s Misterman and Mark O’Rowe’s Howie the Rookie, both given superb productions in recent times at the Old Fitz. Swansong may not be in quite the same league as a play, though there is plenty to admire and enjoy in the writing. But De Vanny’s performance is every bit as electrifying.

We meet Occi feeding a swan he has named Agnes. Swans mate for life, he tells us, but Agnes is alone after two swans fought over her and died. Instead, Occi is there for her, bringing her bread and finding strength in her grace and beauty. From there, he takes us on a journey through his miserable life from school days to a disastrous attempt to join the army.

After an appalling incident at the social security centre, Occi spends time in a psychiatric hospital where he glimpses salvation in the form of a depressive young woman called Mary. There’s also a blissful afternoon on an island while he is working on a fishing trawler. But with Occi’s explosive temper happiness isn’t destined to last.

Directed by Greg Carroll, De Vanny keeps the audience gripped for the play’s 80-minute duration. Wiry, compact and muscly with blazing eyes, he is able to spin on a dime – dancing around like a boxer, cheery, optimistic and laughing one minute; the next, his body contorted into a tense knot of coiled energy, eyes cold and crazed. Physically and vocally, it’s an astonishing performance, while emotionally he takes you through every twist and turn of Occi’s psychotic personality.

De Vanny even manages to elicit empathy. Against the odds, you care about Occi and can’t help but be moved by his awful existence – a tribute to both the writing and the performance.

Swansong plays at the Old Fitz Theatre until March 26. Bookings: oldfitztheatre.com

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