Des Dillon first made his name as a poet, novelist and short story writer before turning to the theatre. Many of the themes and characters are linked to his own experience growing up in Coatbridge and the working class lives around the harsh industrial landscape of slagpits and steelworks. "Fiction", Dillon believes, " is a way of telling a truth." His previous award-winning surreal black comedy Six Black Candles, (Royal Lyceum 2004), is a perceptive portrayal of six Catholic sisters based on his own family.
Dillon's philosophical questioning of religion and spirituality are the themes behind Monks in which three Scotsmen travel to Italy to meet a priest who has legendary healing powers. It's based on his own journey with his father and a friend to help a Franciscan monk build a chapel in Italy. With a storyline partly reminiscent of The Wizard of Oz, Davy, Pat and Jay set off on a 2,000 trek from Glasgow to Italy to find Father Fabian, a hermit who lives at the top of a mountain. Here they meet the “posh” Suzanne who has come to ask Fabian for a miracle cure after a nervous breakdown; Pat hopes the monk can help his son, the sad, schizophrenic Jay, break out of his catatonic state. And Davy quietly reveals his dark jealousy over the break-up with his girlfriend which has left him with “a stone in his heart … lost in his mind.”
The Lyceum stage has been brilliantly transformed into a rocky mountain peak, complete with olive tree, blue Italian sky and white, fluffy clouds. By day, the four visitors help Fabian gather wood and stones to build his chapel, as they each contemplate their past lives, lost loves and hidden secrets. At night, the cicadas chatter, distant bells chime as the monk kneels silently in prayer, his hood silhouetted against the stars. Monks is described as a comedy although most laughs come from the rich, raw Glesga patter and spattering of four letter words – if you find swearing amusing. It’s a slow start as layer upon layer of a complex narrative (featuring a double-crossing, Machiavellian Abbot and a power-crazy, hill-climbing boxer) unfolds into a bit of a melodramatic farce.
But what strengthens this rather lightweight play are the well-rounded characters performed with emotional integrity balanced by a sense of dry wit.
Frances Grey captures both Suzanne’s inner hysteria and her caring spirit, Stephen McCole plays the big, brash macho Dave with a soft, romantic alter ego and Robin Laing in ragged brown habit, sandals, ball and chain is every inch the tragic, pious and lost soul, Fabian. Yes, there is humour and laughter along the way, but ultimately Monks is a thought-provoking drama about the power of religion – “the bible has caused more trouble than drink” – and the importance of forgiveness in our world of love and hate. As Davy wryly comments, “the only thing certain in this life is change.”