Saturday 21 October 2017

Playing the green card -- why Bean's passion play is worth shouting about

Nationalism has always been the thing that most quickly moved Irish audiences to breaking point. But can it move them still?

The Playboy provoked riots because cultural nationalists took offence at a depiction of rural Ireland at odds with their sanctified conception of the West. O'Casey satirised the Easter Rising just 10 years after it, in The Plough and the Stars -- and protesters stormed the stage again.

When armed conflict broke out again on the island, in the North, the Abbey responded again with satire -- this time of the more literal kind. A revue on the stage of the Peacock in 1970 featured a skit on the radical young republican MP, Bernadette Devlin. That was too much for the young Eamon McCann, who was in the audience -- he stormed the stage on his own, called the production "a disgrace", and was bundled out of the theatre for his troubles.

I've often wanted to shout at a play -- but it's normally ineptitude that makes me angry, or boredom. I don't recall ever hearing someone in an audience actually shout at the stage -- until last week.

That was at another play tackling conflict and nationalism -- but this one by an English writer. The Big Fellah, by Richard Bean, is the story of a fictional IRA unit in New York, following its development in parallel with the Troubles, and then the peace process, over the course of 30 years. (It finishes at the Gaiety in Dublin tonight, and plays at the Everyman Palace in Cork from Tuesday to Saturday. If you're going to see it -- and you should -- stop reading here. It's a play with a few twists, and I'm about to reveal one.)

The big fellah himself is the founder of the unit, a leading Irish-American businessman who heads up the New York St Patrick's Day-parade committee. His small unit fundraises, shelters IRA fugitives, administers punishments, and sends back guns. And it leaks like a sieve.

Richard Bean's play seems like a fairly conventional account of Irish-American republicanism. The Americans' view of Ireland is desperately romantic; and Bean's view of the IRA, in the person of a Cork volunteer, whom the unit is hiding, seems similarly insubstantial.

But Bean's play is ultimately less about the IRA per se, and more about moral conflict. He cleverly -- and emotively -- builds the play around key interstices in the Troubles: the hunger strikes (the simple act of reciting the names of the dead has extraordinary dramatic force); the Enniskillen bombing in 1987; and then Omagh.

At the climax of the play, the big fellah turns to talk to the audience. We are cast as the guests at the St Patrick's Day dinner in 1999; the big fellah is the keynote speaker.

The speech becomes a confession: since a "low point" in the aftermath of Enniskillen, the big fellah has being supplying information to the FBI. He is a tout.

As he talks, there is a murmuring in the audience. Somebody isn't happy. A man starts spouting invective at the stage. From across the theatre, a young woman says loudly at the protester, "shut up!" Then there is a louder kerfuffle, and a man shouts at the stage, "You're a dead guy".

It isn't till later that I learn that the heckling was part staged, part genuine -- the big fellah's speech provoked genuine outrage, as well as the outrage written into the script.

After the play, during an audience discussion, a man from Omagh says the play could be followed by a minute's silence, for the dead. Other people from the North say how truthful they found it. The heckler shouts some slurred words, and is dragged out by security.

Bean's play is not seamless, sometimes cumbersome, and not always convincing. But he is unafraid to raise difficult questions (comparing support for the IRA with support for Al Qa'ida, for example), and he has a rare ability to provoke passion in his audience, even as he makes them think. That's the kind of thing that's worth shouting about.

colinmurphy@independent.ie

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