FringeReview UK 2023
There’s no denying Birthright’s sheer power, authenticity and perennial struggle played out between natural justice and lagging custom. With Spare hitting the Remainder piles, it’s hardly gone away. It’s the breakthrough work of a masterly writer, whom only the Finborough look set to revive, as they have here, Birthright being Murray’s second work to be presented. We’d be impossibly poorer without the Finborough.
Written by T.C. Murray, Directed by Scott Hurran, Set and Costume Designer Raphaella Philcox, Lighting Designer Catja Hamilton, Sound Designer Chris Warner. Fight Direction Dimitrus Kafataris.
Stage Manager and General Manager Ellie Renfrew, ASM Maddy D-Houston.
Producer Carrie Croft for Ecclesia Theatre, Associate Producer Mahogany Allen
Thanks to English Touring Theatre, Theatro Technis, Mercury Theatre Colchester and Queen’s Theatre Hornchurch, Special Thanks to Lloyd Trott
Till September 30th
What a season of revivals. In just two months at the Finborough we’ve had affirmative love triumphing with an undercurrent of transgression in The Wind and the Rain from 1933. We’ve had an evening of three Edwardian shorts (Makeshifts, Realities, Honour Thy Father) taking Shavian Plays Unpleasant to Plays Nasty.
For their third and final production of Finborough’s 20th century ReDiscovered season we revert to a single play; though it lasts just 60 minutes (originally billed as 75). T.C. Murray’s Birthright directed by Scott Hurran is a blistering five-hander set on a farm in rural Ireland, probably Cork, at the time it was written: 1910.
Chris Warner’s sound wafts folksongs across Raphaella Philcox’s smoked wattle interior, where a range is joined by a dresser, and a kitchen table with slightly shiny farmhouse chairs. It’s a superbly bleak set though, with Philcox’s costumes so authentic you can smell the peat off them. Catja Hamilton’s lighting is evocative and tenebrous, always notching lower till it joins the real candles, lightening subtly and dropping to pitch-black twice.
Bat Morrissey (Padraig Lynch) is furious. As he tells his wife Maura (Rosie Armstrong) and visitor Dan Hegarty (Aidan McGleenan) their second son Shane (Peter Broderick) is infinitely more eligible to inherit the farm than older brother Hugh (Thomas Fitzgerald). Yet birthright’s rigid. Till it isn’t.
Champion hurler, verse-writer, fiddle-player and all-round local hero, Hugh has his photo in the papers and has just won a resounding match Dan himself is excited over. McGleenan’s Dan just about curbs his natural exuberance, one of many overjoyed at the local captain’s victory and the celebrations even now spilling towards the farm.
The language McGleenan wields is familiar to anyone who’s lived in Ireland up to fifty years ago, or heard a Synge play, with its verb-phrase inversions (“it’s destroyed we are”) and litanic endings in “surely”. Indeed Birthright was premiered alongside a production of The Playboy of the Western World.
Darker tones and language than anything even in Synge are revealed when the couple are alone. Lynch’s hard-knuckle of delivery is raised to a pitch of loathing for his eldest son, so unfit to be a farmer (despite labouring six days a week) you think he might be the agent of destruction.
When the able Shane arrives, clean-cut, quicker to apprehend farm trouble than even his father, you see Bat has a point. Indeed Murray’s skill at calibrating tragedy is shown when Shane goes to shoot their only horse that broke her leg in shock at the celebrations for Hugh getting too close. The gunshot sounds you might think a death-knell, but Murray’s subtler than that. Bat’s certainly now decided on a course of action. It’s not Shane that will emigrate on Thursday, but Hugh.
Lynch’s portrayal and words are so powerful it leaves Broderick’s Shane as an attentive, careful but straightforward man slightly underdeveloped. The whole family never assemble, and we don’t see Dan again: not stagecraft that’d be allowed now.
Thus when Fitzgerald’s Hugh – clearly his mother’s favourite, just as clearly taking after her with his love of circuses and reading fed by her, to the neglect of Shane (as he finally points out) – you can see resentment isn’t all one-sided. Armstrong, overpowered and told to “keep out of what’s not your business” by her brutal husband has a little more agency with Shane and far more with Hugh.
Fitzgerald’s Hugh is already from another world. Begged to stay home and not annoy his father more, Hugh plays a trump card. The local priest (whom Bat also hates) has asked Hugh to personally supervise the celebrations, which he ably does with charisma and people-management. The problem is his arriving back so late, and Bat discovering this.
Murray refuses us the showdown we think we’re getting, or instrument; though Dimitrus Kafataris’ compact fight direction is only getting started. Hugh keeps his word and refuses it. The very ingenuity and mythic reach of Murray’s denouement hasn’t entirely been prepared for. The magnificent, explosive scene between the two brothers where resentments pour out, is unexpected. Shane, earlier, had been reluctant to cross out his own name on the America-bound trunk and write Hugh’s instead (clearly Bat’s illiterate, a twist explaining much).
But there’s fine revelations between Shane and his mother that explain much. Armstrong’s crumbling in the face of Broderick’s just rebukes is where in Ibsenite terms, you see right on all sides, if not Bat’s blind hatred. Equally Hugh’s desire to take the farm whilst Shane makes his fortune in the States doesn’t entirely sit right. Hugh, though competent, shows not the slightest passion for farming, can clearly make his own way.
First-rate performances, notably from the terrific Lynch. Armstrong’s nuanced agency might be overlooked in titanic rages around her, but strongly-etched and notably changing tone, dealing with each man. McGleenan impresses. It’s a pity his part is underwritten. Broderick rises into his force when turning on Armstrong in a seething, memorable excoriation. Fitzgerald’s Hugh is naturally exuberant, but touches dark fury as Hugh rouses himself out of self-congratulatory mode to primal agon.
A slightly longer play might have wrinkled out some abruptness, though it ends with a devastating irony. But there’s no denying Birthright’s sheer power, authenticity and perennial struggle played out between natural justice and lagging custom. With Spare hitting the Remainder piles, it’s hardly gone away. It’s the breakthrough of a masterly writer, whom only the Finborough look set to revive, as they have here, Birthright being Murray’s second work presented. We’d be impossibly poorer without the Finborough.