Thursday, 8 November 2012

Iron Heart

weak visual pun, artist Brian Murray

The pleasure of Rona Munro's Iron is not in the tight psychology of her quartet of characters, nor in the detail of prison life that she so precisely relates. It is in the central battle between mother and daughter, made more desperate and explicit by the extreme circumstances of their meeting (mum's a lifer, daughter's a success) and the ambiguity of both women's motivations.

Munro refuses the happy ending - prisoner Fay may have given her daughter a precious gift of freedom, and retains the one choice left to her - but draws a convincing portrait of a family conflict in extremis. Fay  is manipulative, cunning - Blythe Duff brings out her apparently psychopathic self interest in sly facial expressions - while daughter Josie is naive. Two prison guards watch and try to intervene, only for Fay to rescue her daughter from the trap she has carefully plotted.

It's the switches of mood that give Iron its force - at the interval, it is not clear whether Fay is an institutionalised victim or a master manipulator - and Munro toys with Josie's innocence. As Josie is drawn into her mother's plot - ultimately an attempt to provide at least something of the care she has been unable to give - her success is destroyed, she is morally compromised. The nurturing dynamic is replaced by a vicious, darker self-interest.

Munro's vision of parental care is bleak - the mother's her anger, impulsiveness and alienation corrupt her ambitions for her child, but ultimately redemptive. Fay's recognition of her bad influence may be sudden - coming somewhere in the final meeting - but it brilliantly undermines her confession of murder. Fay, having refused to discuss the circumstances that led to her conviction, reveals all: she accepts her guilt, rejects the chance to escape imprisonment and pushes away her daughter. And yet, by painting herself as the villain, she does right by her family.

Firebrand's production is taut, all four performers compelling and Munro's script given a sparse, exact reading. It's a chilling two hours: intelligent, emotive and challenging.

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