Wednesday 12 December 2018

Kilroy was here: a grown-up double act

Double Cross, Peacock Theatre

Ian Toner and Sean Kearns in 'Double Cross' by Thomas Kilroy at the Peacock Theatre
Ian Toner and Sean Kearns in 'Double Cross' by Thomas Kilroy at the Peacock Theatre

Moral complexity and the Second World War make for great theatre, writes Emer O'Kelly.

As I left the Peacock Theatre following the performance of Thomas Kilroy's Double Cross, an eminent literary figure whispered to me: "A play for grown-ups." I had already been thinking rapturously what a joy it was once more to watch a play about ideas on one of the stages of the national theatre.

Double Cross dates from the 1980s, but the author has re-worked it for the new co-production with Belfast's Lyric Theatre. And at a time when people on this island (and indeed on the neighbouring one) are busy condemning nationalism across the Atlantic as "nativism" because its elements work against our interests, we are blithely unwilling to acknowledge the mote in our own "native" eyes.

Nationalism is, and always has been, the first step on the road to fascism, in any country. ''America First'' differs little from Sinn Fein (ourselves alone, whether in 1918, 1940, or 2018). Tom Kilroy has no such mote in his eye: he is fascinated by the moral precipice nationalism represents, and in Double Cross he takes two Irishmen out of their native milieu and sets them where they must make moral choices unsupported by wrapping the green flag round them.

The men are Brendan Bracken, son of a Tipperary builder; and William Joyce, born in New York to an Irish father and English mother, and reared in Mayo where his parents had bought a pub on their return to Ireland.

Both men shed their backgrounds and identities as schoolboys. Bracken established a public school identity by means of a single term at Sedbergh, where he claimed to be an orphan, and from there went into journalism, rising quickly to become a major newspaper publisher. He is credited even now as having founded financial journalism as we know it.

He was trusted by Churchill, despite having his fake identity uncovered by Max Beaverbrook on behalf of the Sunday Express, and became Minister for Information during the Second World War. He never wavered from believing that information was society's greatest protector… and also that information could be judiciously or otherwise manipulated for good or ill.

Joyce, on the other hand, also forced his way into society in Britain, and he too believed information was key - except in his case it was what is now referred to as "fake news." It was Oswald Mosley's Fascist movement which claimed him rather than Churchill's vision (the latter an early form of the internationalism which after the years of wartime slaughter, would lead to European political union). Paradoxically, during the rise of European fascism, it was Churchill's's stance which was seen as isolationist.

And Joyce became so consumed by "national strength", that shortly before the outbreak of war, he began his infamous broadcasting career in Germany as Lord Haw Haw.

As William Joyce saw it, strength was all - and Germany under Hitler had it in supreme quantity. Captured and brought back to Britain at the end of the war, he was tried and hanged for treason, despite legitimately claiming US citizenship, and despite the British passport he had gone to such illegal lengths to obtain.

The stories are fascinating in themselves. Taken together, they are an object lesson in the subtle maelstrom of nationalist thinking

The two men became servants of different empires; but it was not imperialism which was the trap, but the moral ethos which separately drove those empires. Bracken and Joyce were both fanatics consumed with the manufacture of what nowadays is called "legacy".

In Joyce's case it was complicated by alcoholism, and the possibility that he could arguably be seen as insane. Bracken, on the other hand, mixed his need for social acceptability with his genius for being close to the exercise of power: acceptance within that narrow world of privilege was what he asked for.

In Double Cross Kilroy has woven a tapestry around those moral ambiguities that is both intimate and panoramic. Each character has an act more or less to himself, each seen in an approximation of domestic tranquillity as well as the extremes of their driving passions.

They never met, but Kilroy has made them mirror images of each other, playing with the notion of the doppelganger - so the Irishness of the two men, so firmly rejected by both, becomes in Bracken's case his triumph, and in Joyce's his downfall.

And the hollow laugh of nationalism is ever present: they could not have been who they were without their despised Irishness.

But no matter how dazzling the interplay of ideas onstage, the theatre needs drama, and this Kilroy gives to his thesis in spades: the play is fascinating, with the mental and emotional interchange between Bracken and Joyce, both undertaken by a single actor (in this case, splendidly by Ian Toner) building into a firecracker, with Charlotte McCurry as Bracken's mistress and Joyce's wife, while Sean Kearns is wonderful in the other male roles, from Beaverbrook through Margaret Joyce's Nazi lover.

Director Jimmy Fay has dug deep within his considerable talent to bring this extraordinary work to the stage, and his interpretation is superbly complemented by Ciaran Bagnall's elegantly chaotic art deco set. A play for grown-ups indeed.

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