Saturday, 12 May 2012

Inishmore at Midday

I would expect political theatre to be relevant and vibrant at the moment: not only have I heard Marxists claim that fascism can be defined as “politics as theatre”, the encroaching idiocy of the British government – currently under the impression that austerity is the same thing as doing favours for your mates in big business – makes politics, for once, remotely interesting.

And yet both the Lyceum and the Tron have had productions that point at the limitations of theatre when it attempts to deal with real life issue. Admittedly, both The Lieutenant of Inishmore and Minute After Midday are chasing “the Irish Question” and the impact of terrorism on ordinary lives, subjects emotive and massive: their impact, unfortunately, is lessened by the intrusion of theatricality and the stilted conventions of the stage.

Aside from the content, the productions share strong casts and direction that is competent and straight-forward. The Lieutenant may go for the same humour that marks Tarantino’s attitude to violence while Minute is serious to the extent of being self-regarding. There’s also a shared intensity and attention to detail. Whether it is a cat’s supposed enthusiasm for Frosties or the meaning of a young girl’s pink dress, both scripts focus on the importance of the small in the face of horror.

But while The Lieutenant descends into bloody farce, Minute is determined to bring home the emotional turmoil. A survivor, a bereaved relative and a bomber all relive the day when a small town was bombed, moving obviously towards an almost redemptive finale. The irony of civil war is explicit – of course the terrorists end up killing someone they knew and even liked – the faint hope of heroic acts in the face of death is celebrated. The simple set – three actors, three chairs, simple lighting – does nothing to dispel the sense that Moments is a lecture. And so theatre, rather than bringing the political to life, diminishes the genuine experience of a very serious and disturbing event. Like that atrocious moment in Scottish Ballet’s Romeo and Juliet, when documentary footage of an earthquake was used to conjure intensity for the fictional suicide of two fictional characters, there is a point when theatre only trivialises real suffering for a shallow emotional punch.

Over in The Lieutenant, characters are blinded, shot and tortured for comic effect. Martin McDonagh's script – apparently rejected lest it undermine the Irish Peace Process – uses absurd comedy to snipe at the motivation of Republican terrorists. It’s a bitter, shrill comedy: the soldiers are sociopaths, more concerned over the life of a cat than any number of humans, constantly deluding themselves that they cling to a higher goal. This Ireland is populated by serial killers who simply found a cause – the soulful bomber of Minute is exposed as a myth, replaced by characters who could happily appear in sequels to Saw.

Yet the sharp script is undermined by some weak theatricality. Guns sound from speakers. A scene change becomes a false ending. Blood and gore is obviously fake. A corpse cut into pieces is a comedy prop.
A tighter production could have surmounted these problems – as Minute could have remembered it was a play not a Truth and Reconciliation panel – and taken the ideas further. Mistaking satire as straight entertainment is as dangerous as mistaking theatre for a rhetorical exercise. Either way, this political theatre is not the vibrant exposition of crucial ideas.

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