The angst and anguish of people “given away” at birth by their mothers has been well catalogued. And it exists even when the mother’s plight in the Ireland of the not-too-distant past is well understood and forgiven.
But when a woman finds herself under that heartbreaking pressure, not once, but twice, 12 years apart, and circumstances have altered enough to allow her to keep her second baby, what is the result?
Matthew is 31, and has never given up longing for a meeting with his birth mother despite a happy and loving adopted home. But it’s not his mother who goes in search of him; it’s his teenage half-brother Michael, about to go to college, who wants to find out what the difference is between him and his half-brother that allowed her to keep him, and not Matthew. After all, she wasn’t in a relationship in either situation.
That’s the premise of Callum Maxwell’s play Oh, Brother, a Ragged Run and Café production at Bewley’s Cafe Theatre, revived after a successful debut at the Dublin Fringe Festival.
At just under an hour, the play delves into sorrow, insecurity, loneliness, anger, curiosity and a lot of other emotions – and excavates them convincingly and indeed devastatingly.
Maxwell, who also plays Michael, has a mastery of dialogue that rattles along at a hectic pace, painting pictures that flash kaleidoscopically across the consciousness as the brothers (Ruairí Lenaghan is the yearning Matthew) explore each other’s lives, attempting to avoid displaying neediness while longing to establish the bond they both feel must be there somewhere.
They know nothing about each other, but they share genes and that has to be a start, they both reason.
And behind the exploration is that shadowy figure: their mother, knowing one son backwards and inside out, the other not at all, and the raw pain of long ago bleeding back into her life as she watches in
Oh, Brother is a terrific little play, and the word “little” is in no way pejorative. It’s a touching, wise, funny, and ultimately deeply moving piece of drama, and if the performances could be dialled down a little, that’s a small fault.
It’s directed by Lee Coffey, designed by KathyAnn Murphy, and lit by Eoin Byrne.
Oh, Brother runs until March 4 and will overlap with Emergency, a one-man production written and played by Sam Ford, and directed by John King. It will begin tomorrow and will play Tuesday and Wednesday, resuming for Monday, Tuesday and Wednesday of the two following weeks.
Set in 1941 – during what Ireland officially and quaintly called “the Emergency”, in other words the devastating World War II – the head waiter at Bewley’s is Josef Kellner, newly arrived from Vienna. Refugee Josef therefore knows what cafe culture is all about. When a staff member fails to turn up for work, Josef takes his audience on a tour of Bewley’s, its floors, its nooks and its crannies, exploring its history and its secrets.
It sounds like an imaginative method of promotion for a venue that has been part of Dublin for generations, and which carries fond memories for thousands of its citizens.
Older Dubliners may perhaps feel more reverence for its past could be incorporated into today’s cafe methodology.
However, a nostalgic trip through the Dublin of the glimmer man and sugar rationing may even start conversations about the history and secrets of Mary Cakes and the cherry buns, not to mention thick Jersey cream glooping from green and cream pottery jugs.
We might even learn if Bewley’s had to (horror of horrors) incorporate chicory into the coffee to survive during the war.
The tour is a 45-minute promenade performance, and will involve, apparently, quite a lot of stair-climbing. Part site tour, part performance, Emergency will have two levels: the tour, or the tour accompanied by tea or coffee and cakes.
Meanwhile, given the problems that beset Galway’s tenure as City of Culture, it’s good to see the city’s artistic reputation being upheld.
Last year Garry Hynes was conferred by the French Ministry of Culture as a Chevalier de l’Ordre des Arts et des Lettres for her contribution to artistic co-operation between our two countries. She has now been joined by Paul Fahy, director of the Galway International Arts Festival, in receiving this prestigious French honour.