Entertainment Theatre & Arts

Wednesday 16 October 2019

Theatre reviews: The sadnesses of our past - twice over

  • Brothers of  the Brush, Viking Theatre Clontarf Dublin
  • The School Days of Thaddeus K, Factory Space, Sligo
Stephen Cromwell, Stephen Jones, Luke Griffin and Gerard Byrne in ‘Brothers of the Brush’ by Jimmy Murphy at the Viking Theatre.
Stephen Cromwell, Stephen Jones, Luke Griffin and Gerard Byrne in ‘Brothers of the Brush’ by Jimmy Murphy at the Viking Theatre.
Hilary Bowen-Walsh, John Carty and Miriam Needham in a scene from 'The School Days of Thaddeus K' at Factory Space in Sligo

Emer O'Kelly

Different plays look back impressively to earlier eras.

Twenty five years ago, Jimmy Murphy's first major play Brothers of the Brush was a cracker. It was visceral, cruel, funny and reflective of a particular underbelly of Irish life without either championing or condemning it.

And it's still a cracker. Brothers of the Brush is set in a period when the black economy among tradesman and their frequently devious employers, whether contractors or "private" individuals, seemed set to thrive endlessly. It was seen as a win-win situation; it still exists, of course, but after the harsh lessons of the crash, it's not as widespread for good or ill. But the message of the play - that greed and naked individualism can be destructive and exploitative - remains as relevant as ever.

Martin has inherited his father's painting and decorating business. It's smaller now than it was in his father's time and only Jack, the founder's brother-in-law, remains of the original crew. But wheeling and dealing and ruthless undercutting is the order of the day for the business to survive, and Martin has learned to be a ruthless employer.

Heno (a belligerent union activist) and Lar (recently back on the job after two years of miserable, frustrating unemployment) are working with Jack renovating a near-derelict three-storey house, with the enticing prospect of months of lucrative overtime when they move on to finish off a newly constructed large factory. And Christmas is coming.

And on that simple construct, Murphy weaves a human interchange that would break the hardest heart: nobody wins, friendship and a lifetime of trust are betrayed and ultimately abandoned to be replaced by animosity, loss of dignity and a realisation that the proud brotherhood of craftsmanship has no place in the new dog-eat-dog Ireland of 1993.

There is no social media interchange in this piece, mobile phones are an expensive and rare novelty, and you need 20p to make a phone call, but the 1993 message is timeless and universal, almost a howl of anguish for a return to decency.

Verdant Productions has given the play a terrific (and timely) revival at the Viking Theatre in Clontarf, with a cast of hugely talented actors at the top of their form. Stephen Jones is the aggressive Heno, Gerard Byrne the hopeless Jack, Stephen Cromwell the hapless Lar, and Luke Griffin the hardened-by-experience Martin. They're directed by Tracy Ryan in as good a piece of work as I've seen in quite a while.


Hilary Bowen-Walsh, John Carty and Miriam Needham in a scene from 'The School Days of Thaddeus K' at Factory Space in Sligo

The Schooldays of Thaddeus K sounds vaguely like something out of Kafka. But in this part of the world, Kafka would be translated into English in a stage production. This devised production from Blue Raincoat in Sligo (at the Factory Space) is played almost entirely in Irish.

Despite the pretty fiction maintained by the State that everyone who has been through the education system here can speak and understand the first official language, this is not the case. Only a small percentage of people have a working knowledge of it. ( It might even be a good idea to accept this publicly, and have productions in Irish provide English sub-titles.)

As I am not one of the small percentage of those literate in Irish, I found it very difficult to know what the hell was going on in The Schooldays of Thaddeus K, despite the fact the piece has a huge physical element. It is, according to the company website, set in the 1970s, and is centred on a beautifully made boy puppet manipulated by the cast in full view, so that much of the time he appears to be skiing elegantly through the sequences.

The Our Father is repeated frequently (that much I got), while the only colour in the black and white scenario is a red balloon carried/floated tantalisingly in front of him, but always escaping his reach. I took it (I hope correctly) to be his imagination/dreams. Other symbolic elements were a wavering butterfly and a perky little hat that detached itself from him to become a sailboat from time to time. Thaddeus is moved by an ensemble consisting of John Carty, Hilary Bowen-Walsh, Brian Devaney, Miriam Needham and Sandra O'Malley, who seem to be the uncaring elements of his world, mostly schoolteachers who chant, rave and mutter, while frequently shutting him in a cupboard.

As a piece of physical theatre, director Niall Henry has managed admirably to make it convey a system that has/had nothing to do with education, and everything to do with indoctrination and mind control, with church and State as one. At least I think so: that language barrier again.

The culmination gives us an adult Thaddeus emerging from the ever-looming cupboard bowed down, but clutching a giant unfurled Tricolour. Again, I'm not sure whether it symbolised his emergence as a patriotic adult at the end of his schooldays or a Sinn Fein/IRA republican (which many people would consider to be the antithesis of patriotism).

The piece is elegant and looks wonderful, designed by Jamie Vartan and lit by Barry McKinney, with sound by Joe Hunt.

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