The cast of The Seafarer | Darlinghurst Theatre

With a name like Conor McPherson, one hardly need point out we’re talking about an Irish playwright. An acclaimed, Tony Award-winning Irish playwright and director. In fact, the Tony was won for this very play, now in its Australian premiere, at Darlinghurst Theatre; a co-production between same and O’Punksky’s. To be sure, to be sure, McPherson comes highly recommended and esteemed: The New York Times alone has mooted him as very possibly the finest playwright of his generation, bar none.

Christmas Eve. Four old friends (‘though the relationships are more fraught than that term might imply), two of them brothers, fall in for their annual excuse for a pssiup. Actually, at least a couple of them find an excuse for that most every day, but for Christmas they go the extra mile. This year, they’re in for a devil of a time, one of them bringing along a rather distinguished gent who, it turns out, fits that description to a tee. He is, in fact, the beast incarnate. Mind you, he brings a bottle of Ireland’s finest and wads of cash for a high-stakes hand or three of cards. So one can hardly be inhospitable.

Maeliosa Stafford directs one of the most outstanding and outstandingly well-matched) casts you’ll see this year. Or this decade. Even this lifetime. The cast includes himself, Patrick Connolly, Patrick Dickson. John O-Hare and William Zappa, relishing his role, as Mr Lockhart, aka Mephistopheles.

To boot, Amanda McNamara’s set takes you right inside the hearth, home, hearts and minds of the underclass, holed-up in their dank Dublin basement. Grubby, tattered and as neglected as the people who live there, like them, it nonetheless seems to hold itself up and its head high, even if barely hanging together, by dint of a dab of wallpaper paste and thumbful of putty. You won’t see a better design, or realisation, on any stage. Similarly, Alison Bradshaw’s costumes are grubby when they need to be; tastelessly flash, when that’s called for; sleekly elegant, for the devil in disguise. The capstone on the whole theatrical edifice is Tony Youlden’s lighting design, particularly with the long, noir, Nosferatu-like shadows that play up the devil’s menace.

Dickson is Sharky, sworn off the drink and not Pepsi this silly season, thanks to a dark secret he really can’t remember, or really can’t admit. Unhappily, the soul-seeking visitor is there to jog his clouded memory. Sharky’s a good man, waiting on his recently blinded brother Richard (Stafford) hand-and-foot; uncomplainingly, despite Richard’s manipulation and exploitation. But even good men can do heinous things. Or the demon drink can drive them to it. Just as Zappa is the animalistic antichrist incarnate, by turns the epitome of of seductive, urbane sophistication and a prowling savage, Dickson is thoroughgoing as the repressed, morose, shuffling, unsettled, yet outwardly benign little brother to Richard who, by contrast, is overbearing, unremittingly irascible, self-assured, resolved, undeterred in his alcoholic determination, despite having been blinded while blind-drunk. Stafford’s strength of character, as Richard, rivals the devil’s.

Connolly’s Ivan, too, is a complete take-on of their bumbling, hopeless, freeloading, but unerringly faithful and loveable companion, while  O’Hare manages to make the reviled Nicky a sympathetic individual, more complex than he might otherwise be. All have remarkably surefooted comic and dramatic timing: nary a beat nor nuance is left wanting. And there are plenty of them. McPherson’s writing is, indeed, as has been observed elsewhere, poetic, in its way.

At the end of the day, the symbolism (devil as conscience; devil as drink) might be deemed a little pious and heavyhanded, but the dialogue and characterisation is so finely-tuned it’s easy to forgive. Perhaps the juiciest irony is Richard ringleading the eviction of ‘winos’ from outside his backdoor; while, even without McNamara’s set, McPherson can create an atmosphere pungent with filth (the toilet won’t flush and Richard can envisage no percentage in washing on Christmas eve).

Poetic, yes. In its way. The way in which life unfolds, rather than literature. Though it does hark back to an old English poem of the same name, recorded in the Exeter book, one of only four extant manuscripts of old English poetry. Depending on which scholarly opinions you’re drawn toward, it may be regarded as a sapiential poem and, it seems to me, something of this seeps through to McPherson’s play.

As well as poetry, there is comedy. Black as pitch. The kind of comedy that seeps out of pain and suffering and the everyday tribulations of people who’ve known more downs than ups.

It’s probably McPherson’s finest work to date. And very possibly the finest independent production you’ll see this year.

The details: The Seafarer plays Darlinghurst Theatre until August 12. Tickets on the company website.