by Billy Roche
Livin’ Dred Theatre Company
Ramor Theatre, Virginia, Co Cavan
24 Feb 2005
Reviewed by Belinda McKeon
Irish Theatre Magazine
In 1992, when London’s Bush Theatre staged Billy Roche’s Wexford Trilogy in it’s entirety for the first time, something came to life for Irish theatre. something new and resilient was fused in the gene pool, and the era of the Irish playwright in England, which would take Conor McPherson and Martin McDonagh as its primal sons, was born.
In stretching his portraits of life in an Irish town across a small canvas, and in sketching only the most mundane of events and anxieties, Roche seemed to regress from the way laid for Irish playwrights by his elders. The Trilogy plays resisted any of the sense of the absurd or the impossible from that imagining of worlds and times unlived which had been legitimised by previous Irish writers for the stage, in particular Murphy and Friel. In the pool hall of A Handfull of Stars, the betting shop of Poor Beast in the Rain, and the sacristan’s quarters in Belfry, there seemed little magic, little of the heightened stuff of drama, at least in the sense in which such things had, up to now, been understood. Here, instead, were heroes gladly mired in the provincial, conflicts fought on scales so shrunken that they ought hardly to rival a sparrow’s fall. Yet there was providence in these simple lives; they were mundane from the outside, yes, but from within they comprised -and cost- the whole world of experience. And if there was not magic, yet there were ghosts: of the past, of lives squandered, of the young days lost. McPherson’s The Weir and Port Authority and McDonagh’s Trilogy of another small town would take up and deepen this sense of the ghosting of starkly ordinary lives, and they would deepen too, in different ways, Roche’s ironising, his gentle satire, of those little streets.
Almost 20 years after the first of the Wexford plays, A Handful of Stars, was premiered, to see its partners on the Irish stage once again -Belfry in the Ramor Theatre, Co Cavan, and Poor Beast In The Rain in The Gate, – allows a reassessment. Now that we are here, how interested can we really be in seeing and hearing the stories of when we were there? Now that we see great purpose in our Irish lives, how easily can we dismiss those Wexford lives as anything but emblematic or evocative, perhaps petty, even pointless? In this age won’t they crumble to dust? Arguably, a staging of A Handful of Stars, with its underdeveloped central character of town rebel Jimmy Brady, and its weary denouement, which effectively gives up on Brady’s life, might justify such criticism. But the same cannot be said of Belfry and Poor Beast, and in staging them with feeling and with conviction, these two fine productions show that Roche’s a rt still means something, and ever will. It may not change the world; but it may reveal what shapes that world, slowly and impalpably, no matter how altered that world becomes.Love and betrayal, the struggle of blind faith against physical longing, the emotional endurance of childhood: these are the shaping forces dramatised by Roche’s 1991 play Belfry. This is the Trilogy’s most significant play, going deepest in its explorations to consider areas untouched by the others, and this production from the Cavan company Livin’ Dred plumbs those depths with sensitivity and intelligence. As Artie, the church sacristan who lives one of those Roche specialties, the little life, and as Angela, the married flower arranger with whom he embarks on a somewhat unlikely affair, Brendan Conroy and Deirdre Monaghan take on with measured skill the standard issues of the Wexford plays: loneliness, rebellion and infidelity, and the painful loss which invariably follows. Left to their own purposes, these characters would capably bear the play through a perfectly competent journey from conflict to resolution, with peripheral characters such as the priest, the altar boy and the cuckolded husband providing local colour, but Roche’s technique is to render no character truly peripheral, to give each character a full and difficult story all their own.
Under Padraic McIntyre’s direction, it is Belfry which best showcases the wisdom of this writerly approach. Perhaps the sense of authenticity lent by the setting of the Ramor Theatre -itself a former church, with graveyard in its grounds and stained-glass light falling across the stage- plays some part in the fullness of McIntyre’s realisation, but in truth the church setting is not all that apparent in performance, and Steve Neal’s design is likely to have proven equally evocative in the more conventional theatres in Longford and Dundalk (sic) to which this production toured. Built on two tiers, it set the womb-like cavern of the belfry itself -complete with bell rope and chimes- in gentle contrast to the lively social space of the sacristy below. In truth the success of this production lies partly in Roche’s understanding of the complexity of the everyday, and partly in the superb performances which McIntyre elicits from his cast. Even the slightest of Belfy’s characters, Angela’s husband Donal, lives half in shadows which suggest that he much more than a cuckold; in his frowns, in his pauses, in his ultimately gentle presence, Frank Laverty points to the layers of goodness, of insecurity, of understanding which make up the man. As Dominic, the altar boy from a broken home, meanwhile, Anthony Morris is endlessly watchable, enriching the insolence and energy necessary to fuel his character with a marvellous wit, with a sense of timing that hints at this young actor’s enormous comic gift.
But for Roche, merely to laugh is the easy way out, and McIntyre understands this, drawing from both Morris and from Malcolm Adams, as the troubled parish priest, tender and brilliant portrayals of minds and, indeed, of masculinity in crisis. Dominic’s deepest fear is an unspoken one, for he is still a child, yet in Morris’s handling it becomes clear as day and deeply affecting; it is the fear shared by the priest, portrayed in utterly captivating fashion – the voice, the gesture, the walk- by Adams. Dominic wets the bed, the priest turns to drink; Dominic hates the food at the industrial school and longs for chips; the priest prepares the eucharist and craves the company of a family, of a woman. Both are, in a sense, orphans, and the crossover between their worlds is expertly handled in this production. That Belfry is the only part of the Trilogy to brave the subject of a child’s death marks it out as Roche’s most confident and careful piece. However, even this masterful production could not mask a flaw inherent to the playthe premature peaking of its strongest emotions, from love, through fear, to grief. As if impatient for these lives to take on meaning beyond their apparent constraints, Roche hurries his characters into situations -affairs, confrontations, sudden deaths- to which, you feel, they would much more arrive in their own time.[extract]
Belinda McKeon writes about theatre and culture for The Irish Times.