Powerful theatre, morally essential
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The Evidence I Shall Give, by Richard Johnson, from the 1961 Abbey production. 

Powerful theatre, morally essential

The recent season of plays on the Peacock stage, 'The Darkest Corner', was the Abbey Theatre's response to the evidence of systemic abuse of children detailed in the Ryan Report. All three works illustrate the role that theatre plays in communally addressing the legacies of abuse, and deserve to be widely seen. 


'The Darkest Corner', a series of three theatre pieces seen over recent weeks on the Peacock stage, constitutes the National Theatre’s response to the revelations of systemic and widespread abuse as detailed in the 2,700-page Ryan Report, published in May 2009. The Abbey’s programming is a much-needed and brave first step in a self-consciously “national” artistic response.

The season takes its name from Brian Cowen’s statement that the publication of the Ryan Report “shone a light into probably the darkest corner of the history of the State”. This series engages both with the darkness of these issues, as well as the history. The Abbey commissioned No Escape from journalist and broadcaster Mary Raftery, a documentary drama piece which presents an edited version of the Ryan Report to the audience. The other two pieces have already been staged, James X by Mannix Flynn (first staged at the Project Arts Centre in 2003) and The Evidence I Shall Give by Richard Johnson (first staged at the Abbey in 1961). All three pieces effectively illustrate the role that theatre has to play in publicly and communally addressing the problems and legacies of institutional abuse.

The Ryan Report singles out The Evidence I Shall Give as an “indicator” that historically there was an audience open to hearing stories of abuse. There is now most definitely an audience open to hearing this story – and the play was given an animated reading by a large ensemble cast at the Peacock Theatre. The play is a day-in-the-life of a regional court and dramatises the amusing minutiae of local illegalities alongside more serious allegations. From early on in the play, parenthood is a running theme in two cases: the first of a man who denies his financial responsibility for a child he has sired, and the second the central case of a young girl, Margaret Raffigan (read by Aoife Duffin), “inmate” of a convent orphanage, who is charged with “wilful disobedience” and threatened with being sentenced to a reformatory school. Though the play is somewhat sermonising by the end, the reading is well directed by Sophie Motley, alternating between humour and seriousness.
The relatively happy ending of the play – Margaret is rescued from being sent to a reformatory, and the Mother General of the Order pledges to reform the orphanage – gives an audience in 2010 a bittersweet aftertaste, knowing now that the achievement of justice and understanding for Margaret Raffigan was rarely, if ever, the case for the children in institutional care. What the play also makes clear is the role of the State’s courts in administering these cases, and the extent to which this public arm of the law was deeply implicated in the system of institutional care – and abuse.
No Escape, compiled and edited by Mary Raftery from the vast quantities of evidence presented in the Ryan Report, also documents the State and Church’s responsibility for administering the system of child institutionalisation. This is the first piece of documentary theatre to be commissioned by the Abbey and it is a form that enables a profound engagement with the issues under examination by emphasising, through its focus on the actual words of testimony, the continuing need for survivors to be able to speak out, and to be listened to. The work focuses on three iconic institutions – Artane, Goldenbridge and Letterfrack – and through these three institutions tackles the issues of physical abuse of boys and girls, sexual abuse, and the cover-up of abuse by the religious congregations.
Alyson Cummins’ set is a dark, maze-like space, divided by wooden posts and glass panels, its back wall built of file boxes. The glass panels immediately suggest both transparency and barriers to the emergence of truth, as well as functioning as reflective screens. As the play goes on, letters and statements concerning the history of investigations into abuse are pinned up on the back of the stage, illustrating the accrual of evidence. Though this is not entirely successful in illustrating the vast amount of files involved in the compilation of the Report, they do symbolically gesture towards the overwhelming – and ignored – evidence of abuse which accumulated over decades.
The actors – Jane Brennan, Michelle Forbes, Eamonn Hunt, Eleanor Methven, Donal O’Kelly, and Jonathan White – play various roles including witnesses, nuns, brothers, priests, barristers, members of the Department of Education, and members of the community. The role of Judge Sean Ryan is played by Lorcan Cranitch, who is onstage at all times, explaining key findings of the Report to the audience, and listening in outraged silence to testimony by both victims and nuns and priests.
Director Róisín McBrinn uses the documentary theatre form exceedingly well – the ensemble cast are clearly not able, or even meant, to embody particular roles, but rather to serve as voices for the anonymous complainants. Throughout, the emphasis is on allowing those voices to be heard. Their testimony is interwoven with short re-enacted scenes of public hearings and individual statements from various figures, including a concerned grandmother, and two priests who abused children. By listening, and watching the evidently heartfelt commitment of the actors to giving voice to the pain of those who had been abused as children, the audience also plays a key function in this drama as witnesses who must attend to each voice. Certain phrases recur, so that “I will never forget”, “I will never get over it”, “nobody came” and “there is no way they didn’t all know” become refrains through the play, their repetition an insight into the collective, as well as individual, experience of abuse.
Throughout, the emphasis is on allowing the complainants’ voices to be heard, and this is a key feature of verbatim drama. During Cranitch’s listing of the punishments meted out by priests and nuns, and weapons used during punishment, another actor placed a microphone in front of him, amplifying his voice. The theatrical meaning achieved here is that the complainants themselves are involved in the process of having their voices made audible. Indeed, throughout this production, there is a sense of the process being not only a response to the complainants, but being driven by them, an illustration of how the survivors of abuse have had to push for justice for decades. In the closing moments of the play, the ensemble actors themselves step up to the microphone, to describe the personal legacy of abuse, and to take control of the means of being heard.
The play’s final scene focuses on the way in which priests who had been identified as abusers were not reported to the civil authorities, or even dealt with properly within the religious congregations, but instead sent from institution to institution, facilitating their continued abuse of children. This emerges through a re-enactment of a public hearing with the Christian Brothers, in which the redeployments of a number of priests are discussed. On one of the set’s glass screens, a map of Ireland is traced out by an actor, and the location of the institutions marked out, with lines from one to the other, a graphic illustration of how widespread and systemic the abuse was.
The final work is James X,  a one-man show performed by Gerard Mannix Flynn and set in the waiting room of the Ryan Inquiry. Flynn plays James X, a man waiting to give evidence at the Inquiry of the years of abuse he suffered in multiple institutions. This play is the emotional core of the Darkest Corner season, as Flynn gives an electrifying performance – manic and serious in turn – as a man who has had everything taken away from him, “even me name”. While James X is waiting to be called into the Inquiry, he decides to use the time as an opportunity to tell his story, as a way of reclaiming himself for himself. The story he tells is frantic with ups and downs, and his life is patterned by the different institutions, the reports by medical doctors and courts, which refused to treat him as an individual and instead dragged him through a brutal system for crimes ranging from truancy to shoplifting.
When James X has seemingly finished his story, he turns to the audience and reads a written statement about a truth not contained in his “side-show story”, a truth that he has to find the courage to articulate: that he was sexually and physically abused by priests and brothers in three different institutions from the time he was aged eleven. When he has read this statement, slowly and deliberately, he takes the piece of paper and places it on the stage in front of the audience telling us: “this is yours”. The responsibility is on the audience not only as witnesses, but as agents of change. By accepting this courageous truth, the audience – we – have to accept the responsibility to raise our own voices to ensure that the children who were abused receive justice. For, as Flynn explains in his post-show statement, even now the only people who have been criminalised by the system are the children who went through it. Notwithstanding the achievements of the Ryan Report, this is still an urgent matter.
No Escape similarly charges the audience with not forgetting, or letting the issues lapse. Though the anonymity of all the witnesses to the Inquiry is maintained within the piece, in the programme note several of the abusers are named. This is a process that underlines the voicing of pain and abuse on stage during all three of these shows.
Theatre can open the door, can give these experiences a platform from which to speak, but it is the audience who have to carry the message forward. This is why this season of plays is so vitally important, and why it is critical that the Abbey can find the money to tour No Escape nationally and to the UK, and that as many people as possible see James X. Both of these dramatic pieces are exceptionally powerful theatrically, but they are also morally essential.
Emilie Pine lectures in Modern Drama at University College Dublin. 

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