Sunday 26 March 2017

'Big Fellah' grips from start to end

THEATRE

EMER O'KELLY

THE first thing to be said about Richard Bean's The Big Fellah, an Out of Joint and Lyric co-production directed by Max Stafford-Clarke, is that it is an extraordinarily gripping piece of theatre.

It would be gripping if you were neither British nor Irish, and had not the slightest interest in any form of terrorism. Because it is that old-fashioned thing, a superbly constructed, "well-made" play, with layers of characterisation, fiercely provocative moral dilemmas, tension that is at times almost unbearable, and a cracking cast that works in ensemble on the proverbial well-oiled wheels.

It's at the Gaiety in Dublin for the start of a tour to the Everyman in Cork, Liverpool Playhouse, and the Northern Stage in Newcastle, England.

The big fellah of the title is David Costello, an Irish-American who is the Provisional IRA's chief fundraiser in New York, and we meet him speaking at a Noraid dinner for St Patrick's Day in 1972, in the shadow of the outrage that was Bloody Sunday in Derry.

The public face of Noraid was as a humanitarian agency set up to help the dependants of IRA prisoners in Northern Ireland. Effectively, it was the funding armourer for the lethal weaponry used indiscriminately by the Provisionals against soldiers, police, and citizenry on this island and in Britain. In real life, a man called Brendan Hughes was sent to New York to buy arms, which he smuggled back on the QEII. Hughes was later the leader of the hunger strikers and commander of IRA prisoners in the Maze during the dirty protest.

Bean's Costello is not Hughes, but the characters who lodge and pass through the play's setting of the Queen's apartment that is an IRA safe house are an amalgam of him and many others, as we are taken through to recent history with a demand that we abandon our ambivalence on whichever side we stand, as a story unfolds that spits on moral ambivalence.

Ruairi O'Drisceoil is an insouciant recent arrival, got out of Belfast ahead of being arrested for the murder of a soldier. The IRA Army Council sets him up as a test case: he hands himself over to the New York authorities, and spends the next 30 years living comfortably and studying architecture while an extradition case is fought through the courts. Michael is a Protestant, a hesitant supporter as the keeper of the house at first, but over the years hardening into a relentless and experienced gunman.

Tom Billy Coyle is one of New York's finest, a policeman who, thanks to Irish America's blind romanticism, does not even have to hide his IRA links. Elizabeth Ryan, the lovely honey trap bait for British agents, passes through briefly... and horribly. Frank McArdle, a psychopath almost foaming at the mouth as he slavers to satisfy his appetite for brutality on behalf of "the organisation", rests there briefly. They live their double lives, the invisible gun a third hand for all of them.

In the end, one of them, tired and ready for the end, having refused all compromise, having turned on Adams, and having now put the word "Real" in front of the ugly acronym IRA, the name "Omagh" about to be infamous around the world, must reveal himself as what the bombmakers and murderers call a traitor. And as the sirens wail, the author points at us and says "They haven't gone away, you know."

Stafford-Clark's direction of this frightening piece is like a supportive iron brace, relentless, powerful, provocatively slow, with terror built into every pause. And his cast, led by Finbar Lynch as Costello, Luke Griffin as O'Drisceoil and David Ricardo-Pearce as Doyle, are both artfully restrained and savagely intense.

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LORCA'S Blood Wedding is full of dark passion. It tells the story of a deserted bride in an enclosed rural Spanish community in the early Thirties who, to spite the man who has married another woman, marries another young man. Leonardo, the man who spurned her, is kin to the family whose members murdered the bridegroom's father and brother, and the groom's mother nurses a deep hatred as a result.

On the wedding day, Leonardo abandons his wife and child and elopes with the new bride. Pursued into the forest, the lovers are beset by the spirits of death (the Moon, who lights the way for the pursuers, and her Avenger in the guise of an old beggar), and although the bride emerges from the forest blood-spattered but alive, her new husband and her former lover have killed each other.

Lorca's ground-breaking format also incorporated chorus, dance, musical symbolism, and an implied thread of social criticism of rigid societal norms which resist progress and change. (The author's own homosexuality and progressive liberalism were to cost him his life when he was murdered by Christian Falangist nationalists in 1936 during the Civil War.)

In terms of theatre, his work is what they call "a big ask". I once saw an amateur production of Blood Wedding which, as can be imagined, was excruciating and embarrassing.

Ronnie McCann, director of the Curam Theatre presentation currently at Project in Dublin, claims in the programme that he chose the piece for the passion of its characters, and "how it sits with an Irish setting". The only visible sign of an Irish setting is the plethora of differing Irish accents and the lack of any spirit whatsoever, much less violent passion. Other than that, the various people on stage plod around delivering lines woodenly, occasionally interspersed with a grimace, the whole "enlivened" by a bunch of extras prancing dispiritedly to one side, presumably in an attempt at fiery Latin bravura.

None of this frightful offering is helped by the dressing-up box tat which tries to pass as costuming.

And by the way, I admit to having seen only the first half: I left at the interval. And that's a first.

Sunday Independent

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