Seamus Finnegan teams up once again with director Ken McClymont for this brand new play, running at the Old Red Lion until the end of the month. With the official Brexit date looming large, and Prime Minister Theresa May clinging to power thanks (in part) to a deal with the DUP, a play examining the past and enduring divisions on the island of Ireland could not be much more timely. Where once the main issue was the religious divide, immigration and the north/south border are now the biggest problems to contend with.
A cast of seven juggles upwards of 20 characters to tell several different stories from both Northern Ireland and the Republic, starting with a rousing rendition of Ireland’s Call from various recognisable Irish characters (from a priest to a member of the Orange Order). There is a lot going on. In the modern day, Mary wants to be a nun (much to the horror of her mother), a pair of Catholic priests discuss what life will be like with the new Pope Francis, and an Ulster Loyalist is celebrating the rise of “Big Brexit Arlene”. Elsewhere, Dominic recounts his role during The Troubles, a pair of old school friends (one who stayed in Ireland, the other who left for London), reunite at a funeral, and a Caribbean Catholic priest gets stabbed whilst reading in the park.
Whilst it is a timely thing to be looking at, I don’t think the play quite knows what it is or what it wants to achieve. There are far too many different strands to it, for starters. It isn’t until you get into the second act that you begin to feel settled with the various characters and plots – even then some of them do seem to blend together. You’re never quite sure where on the island you are (surely an important thing if we’re to interrogate the conflict and divisions?) as the characters don’t always mention it – or if they do, there’s so much else to keep up with it’s understandable this piece of information isn’t retained.
You also don’t have the fairly reliable factor of the characters’ accents to give you a hint most of the time, as they’ve either moved from one part of Ireland to another, or not much effort seems to go into giving them an accent. I admit that I couldn’t tell you the accent that pertains to each specific area of Ireland, but I’m familiar enough with the differences between Dublin, Cork and Northern Ireland to get by – even with this knowledge there aren’t a lot of clues. There are a fair amount of geographical and cultural references thrown in, so it may be that audience members with ties to Ireland will hit the ground running, and potentially get more out of it.
I wonder whether it would be better served as a series of monologues, or several short plays. It does feel like the different plots have just been flung in together; yes, they all tie into the same theme, but there’s no cohesion to it as a single play. The mixture of scenes and monologues spoken to the audience does provide variety, but in an unsettling way rather than anything else. And the whole thing is just too long, both for what it is and for sitting in incredibly uncomfortable seats – do be aware that you have to leave the auditorium during the interval so they can “reset the space” (which seems to involve moving a chair & tables onto the stage – which they do during each act anyway – and not turning the air-conditioning on for a while).
Mike Leopold’s design of suspended chairs, paintings, cross & ropes may not give you any clues as to where each scene is taking place, but it is very visually pleasing – and presumably symbolic of the destruction and conflict on the island over the years.
Of the small cast, Shenagh Govan is the undoubted standout. She takes on her varied and intriguing characters with vigour, enthusiastically throwing herself into the bit part of a zealous preacher from Dominic’s youth, as well as the bishop’s radical housekeeper (Mrs Fitzpatrick) and Mary’s grieving mother.
My verdict? A timely topic, but ultimately a confused piece of theatre that gives you brain ache as well as back ache – would possibly benefit from a rethink in format.
I AM OF IRELAND runs at the Old Red Lion Theatre until 30 June 2018. Tickets are available online or from the box office.