Monday July 6, 2020

Theatre: Uneasy marriage of mythic impulse and hyper-realism

24th November, 2019

Blood in the Dirt

The New Theatre

Rating: 2 stars

Until November 30

Rory Gleeson’s debut play, Blood in the Dirt, begins in darkness. The sound of a dramatic encounter echoes through the black. Furniture is being thrown. Metal implements clang against each other. Muffled shouts are audible amid the scuffle. When Francis Donnelly (Lorcan Cranitch) eventually lights the room, the flickering bulb reveals a sparsely furnished aluminium shack: the outhouse of a larger farm building, where Francis has holed himself up as the law tries to evict him.

Blood in the Dirt draws upon the real-life tale of the Black Donnelly gang to give texture to Francis’ contemporary story. The Donnellys were Irish “savages” who colonised the small town of Lucan, Ontario, before being driven out by the villagers, who were as protective of their land as they were of their small town’s reputation. As Francis reveals his own similar circumstances, more than a century and a half later, Gleeson illustrates, the legacy of a family’s past can have potency in the present. Both stories are as much about economics, however, as they are about reputation: the land itself is of little interest until there is money to be made.

Gleeson’s script reaches for the mythic archetypes of Hollywood Westerns as it unfolds. Indeed, copies of Charles Portis’ True Grit and Jack Schaefer’s Shane - both better known in their celluloid incarnations - are stacked upon an upturned crate on Paul Keogan’s set; a nod towards the play's influences. Without an interlocutor, however, Francis makes declamatory statements that double as exposition, drifting off into long passages of family lore that are full of tangible detail and memorable imagery, but which would be better suited, perhaps, to full realisation in prose. On opening night, Cranitch also seemed hesitant in his delivery of the 75-minute script, the long pauses - filled by grunts and heavy breathing - working against the clarity of the plot. Cranitch seems most comfortable in the passages of recollection, when he can shift his gaze into the middle distance and allow his gravelly voice to do the work.

Director Caitríona McLaughlin brings a heightened realism to the script, creating some startling moments on stage, including the discombobulating opening scene. She ensures Cranitch matches his anger with action too: a bucket of water becomes a vessel in which he can vent his rage. However, it becomes difficult to marry the hyper-real representation with Gleeson’s mythic impulses. Keogan’s dimming lights help to create the transition between modes, as does Caoimhín Ó Raghallaigh’s original score. Its predominant theme - the scratch of a bow across a violin string - subtly evokes the menace of the historic violence, as well as the violence to come. Unfortunately it is not enough to create a throughline between the competing narratives.

Blood in the Dirt runs at The New Theatre until November 30.

Little John Nee spills the tea

Music also plays a central role in Tea Dance, hosted by storyteller and songwriter Little John Nee. Tea Dance is an evening of musical storytelling, where original songs tell the tale of the town of Tullyglen, a remote outpost, on referendum day, where the local community is being called upon to decide whether to vote for or against same-sex marriage. It is also the day that a new Tea Emporium is opening, and the villagers - a ragbag troupe of beatniks and bomb-makers, suffragettes and fugitives - gather to tell their stories. Created and performed with Jeremy Howard and Fionn Robinson, you can see Tea Dance at the Town Hall Theatre, Galway, for one night only on November 30.

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