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The Vacuum - Issue 14 - Media spacer The Vacuum - Issue 14 - Media
Revenge
by Eugene MacNamee
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This is an extremely good play, extremely well staged if Belfast was Broadway and if the joke wasn't in poor taste I'd say 'kill to get a ticket'. If you are planning to go see it, it's probably best not to read any more of this review since the complexity of the narrative is going to force me to discuss certain aspects of the plot as I discuss the principle themes, and part of the fascination of the play is in figuring out for oneself what is going on.
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Imagine if the violence in Northern Ireland over the last thirty years or so hadn't been political at all. Imagine if you could go through an evening with the relatives of someone who had been killed, and their reactions were entirely personal against the person or persons who killed their loved one, with no shade of condemnation of the 'terrorists' or condemnation on the basis of political hypocrasy, or denial of the political value or legitimacy of the act. Imagine if the regretful but unrepentent killers (a familiar enough character to us these days) made no attempt to justify their actions on any political basis. Imagine the whole thing was just something akin to a long blood feud between, say, two extended families, the McBrides and the Hamiltons, with about as much distinct and different about them as, say, the Montagues and the Capulets. It is into this unfamiliar territory that Michael Duke leads us in this play, playing out a fable of revenge that, but for one very brief explicit reference to 'Ulster' late in the play, could have been set anywhere. The play is not about the Troubles then, but, when held up to certain events and aspects of the Troubles, acts as a kind of glass which both filters and refracts. It allows through a very clear image, yet one that is evidently partial, evidently a dramatic version of a more complicated yet less clear reality.
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The basic narrative in this play shows how a set of people deal with the aftermath of a terrible act of violence visited upon them; the conflicts they experience between a desire for revenge, the desire to refuse to be drawn into violence, and the complicating third dynamic of wanting to get on with a normal life in abnormal circumstances. In this third way the most important relationships are those of love and friendship, and what is refused is the power of acts of violence to become so fundamental that they define all conduct from that point forward, whether the conduct is oriented to condemning violence or continuing it. The plot device which allows these conflicting desires to be examined in a novel way is that one character, the father of a bomb victim, is offered the chance to turn back the clock to before the bomb that shattered their lives, at the price that the bomber must die. The dead arise from their graves to celebrate the marriage that would have happened if the bomb had never exploded, and to plead with him to bring them back definitely out of the shadows. When it is made clear, however, that the killer must be his younger son, a child of about ten, he realises that keeping the dead alive through taking revenge is a hostaging of the future to the past. This he refuses to do, and the dead return to their graves leaving the living to live on as best they can with their grief, but without blood on their hands.
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This bald summary of the events of the play itself partially inaccurate due to various twists and turns too complicated to recount doesn't do justice to the subtlety and power with which this fairly familiar central idea is realised theatrically. The author, for example, refuses for himself the trap that he identifies of being drawn into regarding violence as the single most profound defining feature of an experience, and the most shocking yet satisfying aspects of the play are not the examples of violence and its effects, but rather the bad taste jokes that he throws in to leaven the dough of human anguish. Furthermore, the ostensible principle theme of revenge is balanced on all sides by suggestions of complicating elements of sub-text; the psycho-sexual tensions between various characters, the confused nature of the debt owed by the living to the dead, of parents to their children, the question of what redemption is and where it can come from. It is these complicating elements which turn what might have been a diatribe into a continually interesting, surprising and theatrically honest text.
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The staging of the play is non naturalistic, the actors playing out their scenes on a set that looks inspired by linear abstractions, and in a slightly stylised form that makes them edge towards Commedia del'Arte figures playing out eternal themes in a local vernacular. This displaces the conceit that our own brand of violence is something that can only be viewed in our old familiar ways, and brings to Northern Irish drama a whole series of new forms while offering Northern Ireland to a wider theatrical public, and to itself, without the standard kitchen sink in tow. This stylisation is never allowed to cloud the complicating themes mentioned above, indeed it is difficult to know at times whether the writer or the director should take more credit for bringing them to light.
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To take an overview, without demeaning the entertainment value of a strong narrative that blends tragedy and comedy, and the occasional striking beauty of some scenes, it is this re-imagination of Northern Ireland as a theatrical space which constitutes the principal value of the play. It is not that there is offered some original formulation of a political idea, or of a necessary social process for reconciliation or for the future of this place. It is, more simply, that this play constitutes in itself a deconstruction and reconstruction of some standard cliches of our dramatic ways of looking at ourselves, in particular that a tendency towards sectarian violence is the most interesting, and the most natural, thing about us.
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