Educating Rita – Lyric Theatre, Belfast

Writer: Willy Russell
Director: Emma Jordan
Reviewer: Kevin McCluskey


Like the 1995 and 2006 Lyric productions of Russell’s play, Emma Jordan’s excellent production also sees the action transferred from Liverpool to Belfast. Changes of place names and radio broadcasts referring to the 1981 hunger strikes are the most obvious adjustments. Otherwise, this production shows how Russell’s exploration of class and education is easily adaptable to other communities. Susan (Kerri Quinn), who has renamed herself Rita in honour of the author Rita Mae Brown, longs to know ‘everything’, signing up for an Open University course on English Literature taught by Frank (Michael James Ford), a hard-drinking and disillusioned academic. Rita’s pursuit of knowledge is one fraught with complex traps, expectations, and double-standards, all bound up with issues of class.

Exam-focused learning demands the abandonment of her emotional and visceral responses to literature in favour of deferring to ‘the accepted authorities’ of literary criticism. Literary allusions are expectedunless they are references to the potboilers of Harold Robbins. This idea of high and low culture and discernment infects Rita’s personality as she frets over the correct wine to choose and how to improve her accent (echoing Shaw’s Pygmalion, which this play resembles in many ways).

The aforementioned ‘authorities’ are represented in Stuart Marshall’s office set in the form of an imposing wall of bookshelves, containing knowledge and concealing bottles of Bushmills. More books spill out onto the floor in a sort of organised chaos. Frank gestures back towards the books when he appeals to the gods of an objective and clinical approach to literature. As Rita moves toward accepting this view of the arts Frank comes to despise it – a reference to Frankenstein encapsulates his dissatisfaction with his ‘creation’. The reversal of roles is handled cleverly in the costume design (by Enda Kenny) and use of space.

As a 30-year-old returning to education, Rita undergoes a sped-up version of change and rebellion experienced by so many undergraduates. Her dress sense moves away from vibrant colours, gaudy handbags and red heels to grey coats, blouses, sensible shoes, and satchels, with a new change to her style with each scene in the second act. Jordan’s use of space reflects these shifting changes also – in the first scene, Rita flits frantically through the space, never sitting down, whereas by the end she has occupied Frank’s space behind a desk as she defends her academic work.

Quinn and Ford work together wonderfully, creating a nuanced relationship between the two characters ranging from the familial to the flirtatious. Rita could easily be a comic caricature, but Quinn expertly navigates the shifts from boundless comic energy to beautiful moments of introspection, particularly when Rita fears that she’s regarded as ‘some stupid woman who gives us all a laugh because she thinks she can learn’. It’s that sense of self-doubt that strengthens Russell’s complex view of class, knowledge, and culture as something desired by those on the outside and taken for granted by those who already possess it. The striking thing about the play is that 36 years on it is still entirely relevant.

Runs until 5 March 2016 | Image: The Lyric Theatre.

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