The Blackwater Lightship, Dublin Theatre Festival, review: Colm Tóibín's AIDS story is heart-breakingly adapted

Admirable boldness: David Rawle and Karen Ardiff in The Blackwater Lightship - Ros Kavanagh
Admirable boldness: David Rawle and Karen Ardiff in The Blackwater Lightship - Ros Kavanagh

A new stage adaptation of Colm Tóibín’s Booker Prize-nominated 1999 novel, adapted and directed by David Horan, The Blackwater Lightship was always likely to be a highlight of the 2022 Dublin Theatre Festival. So it proves.

Set in County Wexford in the 1990s, the play centres on Declan Breen – a young, gay man in the advanced stages of infection with AIDS – as he arrives at the home of his grandmother, family matriarch Dora Devereux. The revelation of his terminal health condition comes in tandem with his coming out as gay to his teacher sister Helen, businesswoman mother Lily, and his grandmother.

Joining the family members in Dora’s capacious home are Declan’s friends Larry and Paul, gay men who, to the initial chagrin of Lily, have come to nurse the rapidly declining Declan. Add to this the fact that the Breen-Devereux clan has a closet stuffed full of persistent and anguished skeletons, and it’s clear that Horan has no shortage of subject matter.

Adapting a novel for the stage can be a fiendishly difficult process, especially when the novel in question is as complex as Tóibín’s. In addition to its emotional and psychological intricacies, the book’s narrative is built of entangled episodes from both the present and the variously remembered past.

Horan has done an excellent job of interweaving such elements as the bitterness that has estranged Helen from her mother, with an unflinching depiction of the realities of nursing an AIDS patient in the 1990s. The family’s coming to terms, in the most painful of circumstances, with its own immersion in societal homophobia is approached with admirable boldness, sensitivity and humour.

Ties that bind: the cast of The Blackwater Lightship - Patrick Redmond
Ties that bind: the cast of The Blackwater Lightship - Patrick Redmond

The importance of honouring this aspect of Tóibín’s novel cannot be overstated. His book played a significant and humane role in Ireland some 16 years before the country’s historic referendum in favour of gay marriage rights in 2015.

The play’s compassionate politics are equalled by a lovely line in comedy (such as Dora’s uncompromising approach to self-defence and the mildly sinister visits by nosey neighbour Essie). The healing qualities of storytelling are another element that Horan has stitched expertly into the drama’s rich tapestry.

Playing on Maree Kearns’s assiduously naturalistic set, David Rawle renders Declan with a compelling combination of heart-breaking pathos and gentle wit. Ruth McCabe’s softening-yet-steely Dora has a blunt humour that the character often does not intend.

That said, it would be invidious to single out any one actor for particular praise, so accomplished is the entire ensemble in performing what is a superb and deeply moving adaptation.

Ends Oct 2. Tickets: +353 1 677 8899; dublintheatrefestival.ie