Tuesday 27 June 2017

Theatre: 1916 Idolatry through the wringer

Debunking myths: Matthew O'Brien and Aoife Moore in Language of the Mute
Debunking myths: Matthew O'Brien and Aoife Moore in Language of the Mute

Emer O'Kelly

What little criticism to be uttered about Patrick Pearse is likely to be muted in the next year or so in Ireland. "Heresy" may well be the word used to greet it. If so, Jack Harte, known to date as a short story writer and novelist, is liable to face calls for his burning at the stake for his first play.

Language of the Mute, a Parthalonians production at the New Theatre in Dublin, takes the mythic status of Pearse and drags it through the wringer of IRA idolatry in the person of an ageing school master who was interned for IRA activities in the 1950s. A tattered deluded hypocrite is dragged out at the other end.

It's the 1990s, and since the 1970s, no word of English has been spoken in the pre-fab classroom in west Dublin that is Donie's world. Generations of youngsters have been told that they have a single multiple purpose in life: to be "faithful to our language, be faithful to our country, and be faithful to the Catholic Church." Kathy, Dandy and Alan were all products of his fanaticism, fed with blind hatred of England and the English, inspired to believe that the future lay in a Gaelic Ireland, and that they could achieve it.

Except that now, in the 1990s, Kathy and Dandy want to kill Donie. They do indeed equate him with Pearse, as he longs for; but the equation is a dark one. Kathy's brother has hanged himself. Dandy was his best friend since childhood, and is a write-off since the suicide. And Alan, Donie's "favourite," despite having broken out of his background and gone to teacher-training college, is unable to form a relationship since Kathy, his first girlfriend, gave up on him as a sexual nonentity and went to London. Now she is back: not to try again with Alan, but to avenge her brother's death.

And beyond them, literally, is the hooded figure of Donie, put "on trial" for his crimes against the children in his charge and living through the nightmare of Kathy's revenge, at the end of which he will die by a bullet, not as the child molester he is, but as an informer on his old IRA pals, thanks to her ingenious plotting.

The play is somewhat unwieldy, with some clunky dialogue, but its passion to de-bunk blood sacrifice and tear down the mythology with which we surround the men of 1916, is as fierce as it is salutary.

And when Kathy demands that we face reality in the language we use, repeatedly spitting on the term "child abuse" in favour of the harsh reality of buggery and rape, it cuts to the heart, as against Alan's plea that "we need our myths, even if they are a fabrication."

This is an important play, and deserves some serious objective consideration. It is played well by Aoife Moore as Kathy, Matthew O'Brien as Alan, Marc McCabe as Dandy and Michael O'Sullivan as Donie.

English surtitles are provided for the flashback scenes played in Irish, but they are so awkwardly placed that one is faced with the choice of following the dialogue on screen, or watching the action on stage. For the many who do not speak Irish, this has to be the choice. (I watched the screen.)

Liam Halligan directs, in a set designed and lit by Eoin Lennon.

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