*This review will contain one section of criticism but mainly it’ll be a lot of asdnjkagnjknagljkgan-ing. *
Wow. What a corker.It feels facile to state it but this play is really good. Really really really really good. And what I think makes it so good is that it’s painstakingly well-made. Careful, rich, and detailed in a way that is so satisfying for a show that could so easily have got away with much less.
Its story arcs over politics: laying its three acts down in a bustling harvest-day farmhouse in Armagh, with the hunger strikes of 1981 rumbling underneath every word spoken. It follows Quinn Carney and his family as the secrets of the past clutch at their present and the kids get drunk and the adults get poked out of hiding. Closed-space and three scenes (and a prologue) in closed time, the structure of this play, while conventional in all sorts of way, shoots out at you, subplots collapsing into each other, proleptic images chomping at the bit to release themselves. It is breathtaking to hold it up to the light.
And what light! I’ve rarely seen a production so textured, so detailed, where every character’s wrinkles are legible without being trite, where every gesture seems to blast apart the idea that you could perhaps stop listening for a moment (I was hooked by every beat for all three and a half hours-- standing – though for 10p, I’d be hard-pressed to complain about that, though I did – plentifully– in the interval, but shhh.) And the literal light, the design of the thing by Peter Mumford, was sensational: casting brutal shadows, then burning into the characters and washing them away, I thought it added so much to those speeches, often pages and pages of storytelling, to make them really sing over time for an audience.
And and and those performances. Jesus Christ. There were twenty-five people onstage at points: all of them managed to make my stomach fizz, all of them were addictive as custard creams. None of them, this is the real mastery in the directing, dropped the ball. They shone without cutting short other performers. Of course Paddy Considine and Laura Donnelly were majestic, but I felt really singed by Tom Glynn-Carney’s Shane, all riotous energy and punchy bluster, and Genevieve O’Reilly’s absent wife Mary, whose beautiful final speech made me dizzy with its desperate, receding, clemency.
This play hurt. It really hurt. And it’s the details that make it: the aged Maggie's flutey, broken-backed singing – a Cassandra calling to the unknowable light beyond this room; the trinkets lining Rob Howell’s intricate design; the way in which the degrading relationships unconsummated, the conversations un-had, match perfectly onto the hunger strikers mentioned and mourned throughout the course of the play. Oh, and that fucking goose!
*Honestly now, if biased nitpicking of beautiful theatre with minor inclusions isn’t your bag, then skip ahead to the next section. Like in an adventure book. Or a tax return.*
Here goes: I have three main thoughts.
Firstly, it’s not [here we go everyone!!!] Jerusalem. Quinn Carney is no Jonny Byron. You don’t love or delight in this character like you did Rooster. Or at least I didn’t. Which is not really a problem, just a prediction that while this play might be loved and lauded, I’m not sure the character will stick quite so unshakably to the culture.
Secondly, a few moments, just a few, are either a tad overwrought (surely a character reciting a bit of Virgil, however apposite, is always going to feel like a port-fucking-entous sledgehammer) or stretched too far. I like a long speech, but many people don’t, and I couldn’t help feeling that *that* many speeches, with that much decadent language, begins to look a little like a writer too big to take cuts.
Thirdly. And most bigly. The play to me doesn’t feel at all politically active. Which is fine. It doesn’t feel like it teaches you very much. Also fine. It doesn’t feel like it’s that sort of beast: "A carrot is a carrot and we know nothing more." and. All. That. So, probably, altogether, maybe, fine. I genuinely don’t think this play is that interested in the Troubles or terrorism, I think it’s a lot more interested, like Miller– to which this play owes more than a little– in human-ness within a political backdrop. Though, Billington seemed to find lots of this stuff where I found little – he would, though, wouldn’t he. *Miiiiiaow*
Anyway, anyway. This is all ok. Fine. Great. But BUT, in rooting around for a political statement from Jez, and the director and the Royal Court, one has to notice for just a second the complete absence of performers of colour, the absence of LGBTQ characters, the absence, in such an ENORMOUS cast and creative team, of seemingly any consideration of diversity – the creative team are all, to a man, white and male, which makes this an all-white show, which I’m not sure, however realistic for a small Irish town in the 80s, is really OK any more. I know *yawn, this again*. But all this “baggage” within a play about violent homosocial relations and two women in love with the same man and lots of big male parts for younger male actors and kind of weedy parts for the younger female actors, is not not political. And that’s worth bearing in mind, I think, just for a moment. And it’s not something that’s not been levelled at this writer’s work before. Right. That’s that done.
*A return to blind imbalance*
Basically, gah good god it’s good. You should go, obviously. If you can. It’s sold out but, as I say, 10p tickets from the Royal Court if you queue up from 6 o’clock-ish – the views aren’t great but if you creep up and stand on the stairs, it’s visible as your knees slightly tremble.
And if you can’t, read the script. It’s a masterclass in plotting. And that ending, even though political Michael mentions he didn’t buy it, left me properly hand-over-my-mouth, tearing my hair out, shaking.
P.S. There's something about seeing a baby onstage that's a small, specific wonder. You become hyper-aware of everyone in the room: every sharp object onstage becomes enormous; every risk hyper-real. Particularly when they start bawling and the actors have to soldier on. I know States writes on this, as does Chris Goode. But maybe there's an essay to write about how babies in theatre are like Barthes' theory of the punctum in photography. If that essay exists already, holler at me.
P.P.S. I think the Virgil bit has rubbed off on me and turned me into the biggest wanker alive.