The Blue Boy – Lyric Theatre, Belfast

Director: Gary Keegan and Feidlim Cannon

Choreography: Eddie Kay

Reviewer: Kevin McCluskey

In a year when Spotlight, a film which explores the cover ups of abuse in the Catholic Church, won much acclaim (including an Academy Award for Best Picture), and following hard-hitting documentaries such as Alex Gibney’s Mea Maxima Culpa: Silence in the House of God, Brokentalker’s The Blue Boy has successfully and powerfully found a thoroughly theatrical language in which to explore these issues, fusing archival film footage, audio interviews, live narration, music, and physicality.

A sparse set of white flats, a rectangular table, and a bench, all sit behind a scrim throughout the performance. Gary Keegan narrates, telling the audience about his grandfather’s experiences as an undertaker and how his work on occasion took him to Artane Industrial School, a place named in the Ryan Report in 2009 as a site of extreme neglect plagued with physical, sexual, and emotional abuse. Audio of interviews Keegan has conducted with victims of abuses and with family members is played, while Keegan asks the questions live in the theatre. It is a fascinating device, bringing a sense of liveness and immediacy to what has already been documented. As such the piece feels like witnessing Keegan’s process and methods of understanding and processing knowledge of Ireland’s recent past. Keegan remains in front of the scrim throughout the performance, while performers in identical blue uniforms and flesh-coloured masks that freeze their faces in an unnerving and blank expression of sadness interact with a puppet and perform in at times jerked and frenzied movement suggesting physical struggle. In one striking sequence, one of the performers signs the lyrics to Otis Redding’s ‘These Arms of Mine’, but as the song continues it is as if she is struggling to control her own body, her arms flailing out and her breath becoming more laboured – the increased speed of the movement recalled the nightmarish blurred and sped-up head-shaking effect from the film Jacob’s Ladder, another exploration of trauma.

On the flats and on the front scrim film footage is projected, including video of a pair of hands making a set of rosary beads as a woman explains how people were so hungry that they would eat the beads. A montage of images of Catholicism in Ireland from the 1920s through to the present day is particularly affective. On the scrim we are shown an interview with the Christian Brother Joseph O’Connor on an Irish talk show. Looming large before the audience, the joviality of the interview and the cosy innocence of the TV audience laughing as O’Connor regales them with anecdotes about the Artane Boy’s Band is rendered grotesque in light of our knowledge of the abuses at Artane. Keegan later takes to playing drums and chanting as the physicality of the performers becomes more intense – words are seemingly inadequate on their own, and instead a frenzy of sound and movement provides a visceral jolt to the audience in the theatre. Fusing documentary with the energy of live performance, Brokentalkers has found a unique way of exploring the legacy of abuse.

Reviewed on April 16th | Image: courtesy of Brokentalkers

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