Brighton Fringe 2012
Fleeto is an old Glaswegian word for a gang. Wee Andy is slashed by a gang member and Mackie knifes another in retaliation. But the violence in these two plays isn’t all towards outsiders, nor are all its victims physically hurt. We ‘know’ this story in outline – this terrible cycle of violence, retaliation, guilt and grief – but in Paddy Cunneen’s retelling, inspired by Greek tragedy, you’ll find yourself drawn into the heart of events, glimpsing this world from one perspective after another, wondering what you would or could do if this were you and knowing in some way it is.
Fleeto is the play that came first, the writer’s response to a city (Edinburgh) divided by extremes of wealth and deprivation. Wee Andy is a minor character in Fleeto but the young offenders Cunneen met while working on it were so interested in the fate of Wee Andy that the second play was written as a debt of honour to them. It is set in the hospital where Wee Andy is treated after the attack on his face.
The stripped down staging and richness of Dunneen’s blank verse invite us to conjure for ourselves the world of these young ‘neds’ in a Glasgow scheme from the start. Mackie (Jordan McCurrach) can’t believe his friend Wee Andy has been attacked. The policeman, played by Steve McNicoll, also on stage as the play opens, is the professional with a ‘heavy heart’ who has to deal with the results of the violence.
There’s no celebration or glorification of gangs and knife crime here, though we come so close up to the detail of a stabbing you can feel the man’s dead weight on the end of the knife.
Throughout the two plays, McNicoll’s air of weary but decent authority and his measured pace in setting out procedural detail (he is also the surgeon in Wee Andy) balances the hot-headed violent energy of gang members and the overwhelming grief of the mothers. McNicoll convincingly portrays a man torn between his feelings, his background and his professional role. There are moments when you see that if he really let rip he could be just as terrifying as Kenzie, the cold-hearted gang leader, but then he reins himself in and gets on with the job. His two characters’ ability to do head over heart gives him the authority to act as Greek chorus in the plays, commenting and questioning as well as taking part in the action.
McCurrach as Mackie moves fluently and intelligently between volatility, vulnerability, spitting hate, and enough sensitivity to be troubled by conscience. When he encounters the mother of one of his victims, he flickers with such a torment of feelings you genuinely don’t know if he will fuck her or fight her.
It is Cunneen’s talent to give such poetry to the character’s lines that we can’t dismiss any of them as ‘scum of the earth’ or other tabloid labels. Their language plays in our heads and tells us what’s inside them is in us too.
Neil Leiper has a terrifying presence as Kenzie and comes across as the most damaged and damaging individual, his language all hard-edged, his body-language aggressive alpha male. But at the end of both plays it is Kenzie who is left with potentially the most interesting journey to face.
Pauline Knowles is the only woman in the plays and the mother of a victim in both. She carries the expressed grief of the cycle of violence and it is to her amazing credit that she distinguishes these two mothers so clearly in their grieving. One mother is on one side of the class divide, lost, but searching for understanding and the other understands only too well and bitterly. Knowles is utterly convincing and moving as both.
Wee Andy himself, played by Amyn Ali has hardly any dialogue but his performance reaches us viscerally as the surgeon wraps red elastic bands around his face, describing severed nerves where the slashes have gone too deep. The visual effect is to distort his face, like deep knife scars. The visceral effect is that the tightness of the bands makes you wince, especially as he wears them throughout the second play. Ali’s eyes droop and open again, like someone trying to stay awake and watchful under heavy sedation.
In Fleeto the gang is also part of the action, roaring onto the stage and pumping themselves up with their xenophobic chant and rehearsal of their various combat skills. They bring a violent energy to the play – a hooded fighting, chanting chorus, in place of a singing, dancing masked one.
Paddy Cunneen directs these plays as well as having written them. They are an honest and powerful exploration of causes and effects of community violence. The way the second play opens with an echo of the first, and then moves into a story untold in the first play, is as though there has been a window with the blinds shut, and when they open we can explore another view. It adds to the sense that there are so many stories, so many perspectives. The rhythm of the verse drives the drama forward, and also slows it down when we most need to look closely at what is happening. And the way at times animal imagery – Dog Borstal and foxes – is used to shine a light on human behavior, is a reminder that this is a writer who doesn’t need to preach and drive home a heavy message. He can create worlds in our heads and let us work out for ourselves what to make of them.
This is an outstanding pair of plays.