Writer: Seamus Finnegan
Director: Ken McClymont
Reviewer: Richard Maguire
I am of Ireland is an ambitious state-of-the-nation play, boldly involving both the South and Northern Ireland, both Catholics and Protestants. It attempts to trace the history of Ireland over the last hundred years or so, and think about its future, and according to this play, it’s a bleak one.
The Good Friday Agreement may have brought peace to the North, but writer Seamus Finnegan suggests other forms of sectarianism exist, and on both sides of the border. It’s difficult to provide a plot to I am of Ireland as it sprawls between Belfast and Dublin, studying the challenges Ireland faces today.Of course, the play also tackles the aftermath of the sex and paedophilic scandals perpetrated and then buried by the Catholic Church. One of Finnegan’s characters believes that the Catholic religion is ‘in danger of death’ and as faith once held the country together, Ireland, too, is facing extinction.
Another series of scenes explores racism. A South Asian man is murdered in Belfast, while a black priest is stabbed in Dublin’s St Stephen’s Green, the knife found next to the bust of James Joyce. Other sections of the play detail the divisions between those who have fled the country, setting up new lives in England, and those who have stayed behind. In between these stories we receive a history of Ireland from Dominic, a man who becomes disillusioned in socialism and Irish Studies. Is there, in fact, two Irelands, that of ‘the poet and the pen’ and of ‘the rebel and the gun’?
The seven actors are required to play over 20 roles in a succession of short scenes, each lasting only a few minutes. Actors leave through one door, only to re-appear seconds later through another, a nun’s habit or a nurse’s uniform indicating a change of character. Fortunately, the actors ensure that these numerous set changes are smooth and quick. Also keeping the disparate strands together is Dominic’s story, and at first Euan Macnaughton keeps him erudite and charming, but then chillingly reveals his secrets. Richard Fish is also very good with his three roles, but his Machiavellian bishop is terrifyingly efficient. Shenagh Govan handles her three roles well too, but excels as a mother, who loses her daughter to God. And in a nice symmetrical turn, Angus Castle-Doughty plays both of the racist attackers, connected by their bigotry despite their different faiths.
The stage of The Red Lion is open, as it has to be when the seven actors are on stage together, and Mike Leopold’s set resembles an Irish bar, with red walls and chairs suspended from the ceiling. Director Ken McClymont could speed things up a little – does the stage have to be emptied at the end of every scene? – but the play’s complexities are confidently presented. Because of its expansive reach, the first half of the play feels like a series of beginnings while the second half becomes a series of endings, each more desperate. The play starts with a pageant of cross-dressed clergy, drag queens and black IRA men suggesting that I am of Ireland will be a comedy, but ultimately this a sobering, serious play.
Runs until 30 June 2018 | Image: Michael Robinson