FringeReview UK 2017
Directed by Sam Mendes, this long-awaited play set in Armagh, 1981, is anchored in Rob Howell’s extraordinary verismo starts with a brick wall. A detailed farmhouse kitchen then emerges complete with weathered rafters and children’s bright drawings dangling severally from a flight of stairs. Peter Mumford’s lighting stresses different times of day slanting through motes or midnight. Nick Powell’s sound and musical arrangements stud this quite stunningly layered production, with twenty-two actors, including a real baby twice and other live things.
This hugely orchestrated drama soon stills any comparisons with Jez Butterworth’s previous works, then these seep back. Directed by Sam Mendes, this long-awaited play set in Armagh, 1981, about the discovery of a younger brother’s body ten years late, sets off a collision between the IRA who likely killed him and the man’s elder brother a retired fighter from their ranks turned farmer. His silence is required.
Rob Howell’s extraordinary verismo starts with a brick wall under which a priest is forced to reveal all he knows about the farmer. A detailed farmhouse kitchen then emerges complete with weathered rafters and children’s bright drawings dangling severally from a flight of stairs. Peter Mumford’s lighting stresses different times of day slanting through motes or midnight. Nick Powell’s sound and musical arrangements stud this quite stunningly layered production, with twenty-two actors, including a real baby twice and other live things.
Amidst a sprawling family there’s taut symmetry. Des McAleer’s Uncle Patrick Carney’s come for his shave and nudges the single patriarchy we’d otherwise get: culturally alert and sceptically dyspepsic, he supplies the Virgilian Ferryman, the myth of unburied souls waiting a thousands years before crossing. It’s pivotal, though not the only time we’re treated to poetry as a symbol of something else. And then there’s the songs.
It’s late August, annual harvest festival time. Two aunts, Maggie Far Away aptly hears banshees and predicts before lapsing into stupor. Brid Brennan’s distracted authority builds quietly throughout counterpointing an opposite Irish experience: Aunt Patricia Carney who followed her older brother to the 1916 rising, cradled him dying and took his proffered gun. Dearbhla Molloy’s detailed pain, stamped through with ritual history, reminds us that ten hunger strikers just died. She also hints at niece-in-law Caitlin Carney’s cuckoo presence and generally spreads discord. But her radio with Margaret Thatcher’s ‘crime is crime is crime’ pre-echoing authoritative rituals of 2017 (Brexit is Brexit) provides the second major production this year with 1981 archive recording: the other’s Steve Waters’ Limehouse at the Donmar. Like Waters’ use of an on-stage character in a vintage broadcast it opens a window to shut it smartly before we’re alienated. Aunt Patricia, continually thwarted in trying extended bursts, integrates this further. Another recent echo is that baby, one also seen in Nina Raine’s superb Consent at the NT Dorfman.
Quinn Carney’s wife Mary has after bearing seven children slowly exempted herself from the business of living, and there’s a tender unspoken shiver at the heart of this play. Quinn’s and his younger brother’s probable widow Caitlin are more than attracted but mute. It’s brought out beautifully in the first scene as they flirt over saving members of pop bands, the badinage patterning what’s really worth saving. Taken in when her young husband vanished she’s brought up Oisin, fourteen, amongst Quinn’s and Mary’s children. Laura Donnelly’s register of Caitlin’s movement through one day arches from flirty young woman through stoic acceptance of news (and commanding its temporary suppression), anxious mother to someone transcending anything imaginable at the end.
Butterworth draws in a net of characters whose presence seems peripheral then reveals itself in a tug. John Hodgkinson’s Tom Kettle a slow-witted possibly autistic Englishman is abandoned at twelve and taken in by the Carneys. Using literal rondellos of conversational gambit he loses himself but there’s dramatic point in detailing his thought-processes. Pulling apples and live rabbits out of his overcoat is indiscriminate, yet he too hides and declares love, he too even catching a wayward (yes live) goose springs several surprises. One of these is reciting a poem ‘The Silent Lover’ by Sir Walter Raleigh. Its ramifications both personally and for another couple could hardly be clearer. But Ireland has small love for Raleigh. Butterworth’s brilliance in placing this as with Virgil’s trope enriches though tellingly invokes demons. ‘Vanishing. It’ a powerful word that.’ Not only has a brother been fond in a peat bog, but vanishing is what Mary’s done, what happens to two aunts who’ve lost those they love, the slow vanishing of all the women here.
You can tell this is going to be interrupted. Muldoon the sinister IRA supremo who already has a Corcoran cousin or nephew (Shane, Tom Glynn-Carney’s engagingly brattish turn) in thrall arrives to make his demands which like Russian dolls keep opening to reveal another. Stuart Graham’s chillingly urbane leader chisels his demands on others’ brows metaphorically. He expects them to twitch after.
Paddy Considine as Quinn Carney builds an arc from almost forgotten youthfulness with Caitlin to responsible controlled family man turning his back on violence, conscious how it’s not turned its back on him, naggingly unsure if his action caused his brother’s death. There’s an uncompromising process and indeed flashpoints. Everything we discover – however incidentally rich – holds a purpose. Butterworth layers this in small unresolved questions, Shane’s blatant blather provides one clue as to what might have happened to a similarly callow youth a decade ago, but Shane’s drunken bravado has its catalytic effect too. Considine’s watchful sense of how doors are closing around him kins him distantly to Rooster Byron in Jerusalem, the hemmed-in once grand man who seems about to be cowed or snuffed.
His emerging dormant powers first enact a vanishing. He politely orders Father Horrigan’s Gerard Horan to leave, knowing he’s broken confession through family threats, but ominous containment is built up only to be dashed – for now.
It’s not only from the IRA Carney has to face a pincer movement on Caitlin. Mary a slowly asserting Genevieve O’Reilly in a key scene explains her mystery viruses, her withdrawal.
The climax long prepared is unpredictable in swerve and velocity. It’s still a denouement to mull over. So consummate is the acting you don’t notice Mendes’ detailed almost filmic slowness gathering it all up. Butterworth’s rightly drawn comparison with Sean O’Casey, for one, and Brendan Behan’s The Hostage. It’s a homage taken boldly by a mainland British dramatist where Maggie’s banshees – quite audible – might invoke Conor McPherson did we not also recall the end of Jerusalem. Involving a gamut of Irish myth interleaving history and country dancing as well as disco, Butterworth stakes claim in one clear stamp. He repays any appropriation he might be charged with. Whatever past drama might seem invoked though, Butterworth stands in this play worthy of comparison with any of them.