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Whistling Psyche
by Andrea Lopaz

A person tells stories because he doesn't want the waves of silence to kill him.
--- Dr Barry
Whistling Psyche
Claire Bloom as Florence Nightingale
(Photo: John Haynes)
In Whistling Psyche, playwright Sebastian Barry imagines an encounter between the historic figures of Florence Nightingale and a Dr Barry. The play is set in an antiquated train station waiting room where we find the two characters discussing their lives at a leisurely pace. Miss Nightingale tries desperately to make contact with Barry, who ignores her and speaks mainly to himself.

The set, dim lighting, and sound create a mysterious and promising atmosphere. There is a lit up fireplace, a mirror mantelpiece, misty background and haunting sounds of dogs, owls, and trains. To support certain revelatory scenes, there are projections of waves and other figures on the backdrop, in the mist. This design is extremely evocative. The simultaneously cavernous and ephemeral set reflects the dynamics of the play . The writing is mired in exposition, uncovering the histories of these two important figures. And yet, sometimes, the play becomes more mysterious, released by moments of contact between characters or with the audience, and transported by evocative poetic language.

The two character dramatic setup seems to be a device to explore the character of Dr JM (James Miranda) Barry. Although lesser known than Florence Nightingale, he was seminal in the organization of British (and colonial) hospitals and the treatment of the insane. Born in Ireland, Barry was a precocious child --. biologically female and forced, at the age thirteen, to become a man to the outside world in order to study and make money.

Kathryn Hunter portrays Dr. Barry very convincingly and with an extreme amount of compassion. As Miss Nightingale says of Dr. Barry, "This is a strange, singular, weirdly irreducible person." Dr. Barry's life story evokes the British Empire at its height and is full of compelling tales. However, there is so little movement or change in dynamic on stage, and the tales are told at such an even pace, that the play becomes increasingly less engaging.

Interestingly enough, Barry and Nightingale did meet each other once during the Crimean War. Barry was a military medical inspector, and when he met the famous Miss Nightingale, he attacked her with jealousy and rage about something minor. Miss Nightingale represented a terrifying possibility to Dr Barry: that it is possible to live in the male world without fully sacrificing identity and gender. The play fully explores this anger, as well as the liminal place in society which Dr Barry, and less so, Miss Nightingale ,were forced to occupy. Claire Bloom is very compelling and presents a lyrical performance as Miss Nightingale, disturbed and ultimately moved by her companion.

Director Robert Delamere treats the script with great care for the rich language. However, this limits the play and robs it of a sense of urgency. Stuck in this situation reminiscent of Sartre's No Exit, and Beckett, we long for contact between the characters. While waiting, the attention wanders. However, when the characters do relate, there are transcendent moments onstage.

Whistling Psyche
Written by Sebastian Barry
Directed by Robert Delamere

Starring: Kathryn Hunter, Claire Bloom
Designer: Simon Higlett
Lighting Designer: Tim Mitchell
Sound: John Leonard
Music: Ross Lorraine
Running time: One hour forty minutes without an interval
Box Office: 020 7359 4404
Booking to 19th June 2004.
Reviewed by Andrea Lopaz based on 18th May 2004 performance at the Almeida, Almeida Street, London N1 (Tube: Angel, Islington)
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