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The Vacuum - Issue 18 - Waste spacer The Vacuum - Issue 18 - Waste
Voyage Of No Return
by Eugene MacNamee
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A junior employee with the Northern Irish Tourist Board on a junket to Monserrat charms his way into the affections of a 'fine black woman'. The junket is designed to explore the possibility of tourist ventures that might play on the supposed sympathy between the two peoples since the deportation of thousands of Irish as slaves and indentured servants to the 'Emerald Isle of the Carribean' during the Cromwellian period. The young man takes the same tack with the local woman, playing on how he understands what it's like to be part of a subjugated and now risen people; he's a 'taig with attitude'. He paints her a picture of the friendly Irish, tells her he'll take her to visit her namesakes, the Sweeneys of Donegal. She's more interested in strolling down the Champs Elysee, so he promises her this too. A few months later when a volanic eruption destroys most of the island she comes to live in London, and what might have been just a holiday romance becomes a committed relationship as they visit back and forth. They marry and settle in Belfast, but plan on moving back to Monserrat as tourist entrepreneurs.
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A late seventeenth century Irish plantation and slave owner, himself deported from Ireland as a slave but now risen to the ruling class, rants to his black housekeeper, whom he has named 'Bridget', about the terrible English and the worthless slaves. The English are lazy, incompetent, and prejudiced against people of his race and religion. A farm has come up for sale, but he can only buy it if he converts to Protestantism. The blacks are workshy, untrustworthy. Bridget is the exception, she's his eyes and ears, he thinks, and he rewards her by promising to take her back to Galway with him as his servant. He treats her like a favourite dog, alternating affection and brutal discipline. He rapes her as the mood takes him. Behind his back she plots rebellion with the other slaves.
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These two narratives are played out and brought to conclusion in a series of inter-cut scenes alternating past and present. There are a couple of brief examples of Afro-Carribean calabash dancing and singing where the Bridget character is alone, but aside from that the staging set-up is all intense two-handed dialogues on a bare and propless stage. The staging is in the round and the set an oval low-walled ochre compound suggesting at once a sandy island and a kind of prison. Around the walls of the theatre are hung large paintings of dancing warriors, incorporating African images and Celtic tracery. One masked man dances holding what looks like an armalite rifle. African-Irish fusion music, heavy on the drums, punctuates and compliments the performance.
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The programme notes for this performance mention that there were rare occasions of solidarity displayed between African slaves and Irish slaves or indentured servants in the Caribbean. In the play, however, the historical concentration is on the more usual course of events, that the Irish were particularly brutal to the blacks. It confronts head-on the uncomfortable question of why the Irish couldn't manage to learn the historic lesson of not doing to others what they wish had never been done to them. The answer here is the depressingly familiar idea of the lower classes adopting the twisted values of their oppressors and competing with each other for the scraps from the rich man's table. In the juxtaposition of contemporary mass tourist industrialisation with sugar plantation slavery the suggestion is that processes of dehumanising exploitation have been refined but not eliminated. In the parallel stories of an Irish man and Caribbean woman in the seventeenth and twenty first centuries a similar suggestion is made of the refinement of techniques of exploitation in racial and sexual politics, but the persistence of basic structures. The theme that runs through both the historical thematic and the personal stories are that exploitative power corrupts those who wield it as much as it tortures those who endure it. Both male characters are trapped in a mentality of escape by apeing the dominant power in one case the Colonial English, in the other the business ethic of modern capitalism and fuck anyone lower down on the food chain. This is destroying them both, but they are both rushing towards their destruction as a means to fulfill the vision of themselves that they have been sold. More than a critique of Irish manhood the play is an all-out attack on the cruelty, self-delusion and treachery that seems to lie at the core of this wounded and pathetic creature. The female characters are abused and tormented in various ways, yet emerge as the strong and heroic figures, capable of authentic living and loving. Neither male or female characters are written as caricatures, being tugged this way and that by conflicting emotions and understandings which is particularly chilling and bravely written in the brutal relationship between the Irish slave owner and Bridget. Ultimately the women prove themselves to understand the deep need for doing the right thing, whatever the cost, while the men are paralysed by the cost of doing the right thing.
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All this from Dubbeljoint Theatre Company, explicitly and unashamedly a community organisation to speak with and for Republican West Belfast. And from a writer who's an ex-editor of An Phoblacht. On one level you could see it as a Sinn Fein writer in residence proclaiming that they're about republican socialism, not nationalism if all it means is consumerism and business dominance. As such it amounts to a critique of current Irish politics. On another level it may constitute a remarkably bold Republican self-interrogation as to the delusion of those who become brutalised by the power they wield even as they cling to an idea of themselves as victim.
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The major theatrical flaw in this play is the clunky structuring, alternating past and present with black-outs as the characters move on and off stage. The historical parallels between the principal characters aren't convincing enough for resonances to sing out and carry some real sense of emotional truth beyond the historical story, leaving a sense of stories forced upon each other in a theatrical dead-zone. The characters, despite being well acted, despite being helped by a staging in the round which lends an air of intimacy, and despite some clever and subtle writing, could never quite get beyond their role as ciphers for the historical and political message. There was always a sense of them being wheeled on and off amidst a series of Afro-Irish elements that never quite ignited into something more than the sum of the parts.
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Nevertheless, a thematically very interesting 'sign of the times' play; authentic political theatre tackling necessary issues in a confrontational and profound way.
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