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Mighty Pen Theatre’s Living with a Dark Lord | Review

Living with a Dark LordFirst things first: Living with a Dark Lord is not about the home life of a leading politician – there are quite a few that would fit the bill. There’s a party being thrown for Shaun O’Sullivan, but he’s an off-stage character throughout. Even in stage adaptations of The Great Gatsby, the guy eventually makes an appearance at his own jamboree. ‘Happy Spawning Anniversary’, a large sign says – because Shaun detests the word ‘birthdays’. As with so many things in Shaun’s perception of the universe, there aren’t necessarily logical reasons for his lines of thinking. Until relatively recently, he has had, as a person on the autistic spectrum, great difficulty in expressing himself through verbal communication.

Shaun himself, so the audience is told late on in proceedings, is not at the party’s location, but with his parents. His sisters, Maeve, Cait and Aisling all play themselves, or at least versions of themselves – there is no reason, in my view, to doubt the authenticity of even the finest of details in this autobiographical narrative, but there may be certain events in their lives that, for any number of reasons, aren’t revealed here. I suggest these three: first, there just isn’t time for a blow-by-blow account of their upbringings, so decisions must be made as to what to include and exclude; second, some stories, frankly, aren’t very interesting; and third, some things are just better left private.

There isn’t much that falls into that third category. Shaun styles himself, apparently, as ‘The Dark Lord’, which struck me as slightly odd, especially as ‘dark lord’ denotes a character akin to Lord Voldemort from the Harry Potter novels (or films, or the Cursed Child stage show) or Satan. As this play makes clear, Shaun is not inherently evil, even if his conduct makes people who do not know him well think there’s something of the night about him. In short, he has a creative mind and an overactive imagination. I wonder what he makes of the play’s title reducing him to ‘a’ dark lord, one of many, rather than ‘the’ one and only.

Tales are regaled galore – one or two are even acted out. I found it slightly implausible that the other siblings are so unaware of what one of them is recalling: as a narrative device to inform the audience with regards to what happened years ago (and everything seemed to be years ago – there was nothing, for instance, about what Sean got up to the other day), it felt overused. It might have been more convincing overall if every so often one sibling started a story, and the others pitched in, with plausible disagreements over minor details.

The story is easy to follow and gives voice to the sorts of characters I often wonder about when watching shows about individuals who make a significant impact on those around them. As one of the sisters puts it, “You can be in the background but still be in the picture”. The extraordinary is found in the ordinary – Shaun is not, as far as I could tell, a member of Mensa. He is not producing artwork selling for four or five-figure sums, he does not give ‘TED Talks’, he does not speak nine languages – you get the idea. Yet without him, the sisters’ lives would have been quite different, and this play would never have been made.

There are ‘should I be laughing at this?’ moments in this production, but it’s a bittersweet yet somewhat hopeful, warts-and-all portrayal of a family perpetuating the positives with the cards life has dealt them. An emotionally charged and absorbing play.

4 stars

Review by Chris Omaweng

Living with a Dark Lord is a play written, produced and performed by Maeve, Cait and Aisling O’Sullivan – the three sisters of Shaun, who prefers to be known as ‘The Dark Lord’. It’s been this way for over 15 years when Shaun gave up speaking and put on a cloak, and while this has been the norm for them, Shaun’s way of life has fascinated psychiatrists, friends and family members (but not always in a good way.)

Shaun has autism – a life-long neurological developmental disorder which becomes obvious at around three or four years old – and although the cause of autism is still a mystery, the impact it has on a person and their family is clear to see.

The play is set over the course of an evening, when three sisters come together on their brother’s 30th birthday. The sisters swap memories to fill in the gaps of their past and map out how they managed to soften his dark persona and all the times he added variety, hilarity and unexpected wisdom to their lives. As this turning point hits home, they worry about the future and whether darkness really is what the world has in store for their brother – a world only just beginning to make room for difference.

Character 1: Maeve O’Sullivan
Character 2: Cait O’Sullivan
Character 3: Aisling O’Sullivan

Director: Ruth Rundle

Friday 3rd & Saturday 4th August 2018
Drayton Arms Theatre, London

Monday 13th – Saturday 18th August 2018
The Vault, Paradise Green, Edinburgh Fringe Festival


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