Wednesday, 12 June 2013


It’s a sad thing for a critic to admit, but I have been struggling with a few reviews this past week: Dominic Hill’s direction of Caryl Churchill’s Seagull and Far Away; Blue Raincoat’s adaption of Flann O’Brien’s The Poor Mouth.

They ought to be straightforward enough. Far Away was well performed, tightly directed (the staging was spectacular and added a menacing industrialism to the diverse scenes of brooding oppression and fear) and examined the impact of political and social savagery on individuals. The Poor Mouth was surreal, well performed, and transmitted O’Brien’s peculiar, dark humour.
I frequently moan that an aesthetic review is too limited – praising the actors is all well and good, but it ignores the content of the play (and everyone involved decided on the plays for a reason, and I hope the reason wasn’t just to be told how marvelous they are). But Churchill’s agenda seems so vast that it is impossible to reach all of her ideas and do them justice.

The Poor Mouth, which comes on like a satire of sentimental art about the peasantry, has an equal scale. O’Brien is throwing the mockery around all manner of Irish stereotyping. I think the problem is that they fulfil something I believe theatre can offer: the ability to be both universal and particular.

That word – universal: here’s the problem. I don’t believe in universal values. Yet theatre, at its most vital, makes an appeal to values that are not limited to a time and place. The Poor Mouth bangs on about Ireland, and its tragedy and comedy are linked to a sense of Irish identity that is at once mocked (like when the middle-classes decide to get down with the peasants, learn their language and get fleeced by the locals) and defended (the treatment of the hero is an eloquent plea for understanding). Yet the jokes don't need a knowledge of Irish geography and history, and the compassion O'Brien has for his characters can apply to any marginalised group. 

Maybe I need to be less post-modern and accept that some things do escape the dominant orthodoxy. The best plays challenge my preconceptions - not on the detail, but the very foundation of my lazy post-modern thinking. 

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