Dan Gordan and Lisa Hogg in 'Blackbird' by David Harrower.

Dan Gordan and Lisa Hogg in 'Blackbird' by David Harrower.

Dan Gordan and Lisa Hogg in 'Blackbird' by David Harrower.

Dan Gordan and Lisa Hogg in 'Blackbird' by David Harrower.

David Harrower’s Blackbird is not an easy or straightforward play. Its narrative brings face-to-face Ray, a middle-manager in a small town factory, with Una, a woman in her late twenties who he abused when she was twelve. She has returned to confront him, to wreak a kind of revenge for the years she has lost since the night he abandoned her in a ferry port when he ran away with her. That revenge is to threaten the new life he has formed since his release from prison. So far, so simple. The crux of the issue is not, however, that she has been scarred by his sexual abuse of her; rather that, in abandoning her, he broke her heart and that after all this time she still aches with her feelings for him.

Casting Dan Gordon in the role of Ray adds a further layer to this. He is not the monstrous paedophile of tabloid scare stories; rather, both ghosting and resisting Gordon’s own affable stage and television personae, he is insistently reasonable in his response to Una. As the play progresses and Ray’s vulnerability comes increasingly to the surface, Gordon’s body seems to collapse into itself, as his declared love for Una and the stakes he has in his current life contest within him. The physical contrast provided by the slim frame of Lisa Hogg’s Una could not be greater. She exhibits both an adult knowingness and sense of attack in her engagement with Ray, while glimpses of her earlier childish self seep through at key points. These are deftly realised and complex figures that resist categorisation.

As a study in economical writing and dramatic plotting, the script is fantastic. The meeting takes place in the factory’s dilapidated staff room and Harrower is able to provide compelling reasons for why the two characters stay committed to this meeting, despite the distress it causes them. The offstage presence of other characters walking around the building, ringing on the telephone and calling at the door only increases the pressure. It is in this aspect that the performances excel. Gordon and Hogg sustain convincingly the tension between the characters that keeps them trapped in the room. They play each moment with a well-judged physical intensity that keeps the audience rivetted. Sometimes this results in sharp barbs; at one point, in outright violence. Each moment is beautifully weighted and the overall effect is absorbing. When each is given an opportunity to explain what happened on the night that they last were together, both actors are able to reveal and contain the deep-seated emotions that still inhabit their characters.

Prime Cut Productions present 'Blackbird' by David Harrower.It is in this control that the production excels, never giving way to easy emotion. Jordan’s direction is authoritative, allowing space for the action to develop and for the effects of the meeting on each of the characters to be registered and developed. Particularly crucial is the stillness they exhibit in responding to the other’s story of how they came to be parted. This places the audience in a difficult place. Una’s earliest accusations clearly lay out the case against Ray: his responsibility as an adult to rebuke her childish infatuation, rather than his grooming of her as an object of his desire. Against this, the audience witnesses the revelation of a deep commitment between them that has survived the passage of time and circumstance. Una reveals how she was victimised by the legal processes and traumatised by her parents’ reaction to the relationship with Ray, forced to remain in the same street and at the same school to ensure her sense of shame.

Stuart Marshall’s battleship grey, single-room set, provides the crucible for this action. It is littered with the detritus of the workers’ discarded take-away boxes, under the insistent hum of unforgiving florescent lights, accompanied by the dripping rain visible at an upper window. A perspex panel in the back wall allows the off-stage characters to be seen as they come and go, their presence only exacerbating the forces pressing in on Ray.

Ultimately, the production asks more questions than it answers and this is to its credit. Neither character’s account of what happened can be taken as a transparent rendition of the events, yet both retain the power to provoke powerful emotions in the spectator. It is in engaging with this emotional response that each spectator must also come to an ethical judgement. Jordan’s production, like Harrower’s script, makes this difficult, but no less crucial.

Tom Maguire is a Senior Lecturer in Theatre Studies at the University of Ulster.

  • Review
  • Theatre

Blackbird by David Harrower

8 - 24 September, 2011 (on tour)

Produced by Prime Cut Productions
In Lyric Theatre (Naughton Studio)

Directed by Emma Jordan

Set & Costume Design: Stuart Marshall

Lighting Design: Sarah Jane Shiels

Sound and Music: Kevin McCullagh

With: Dan Gordon and Lisa Hogg

2011 tour: Lyric Theatre, Belfast - 11 to 18 Sept; Sean Hollyd Arts Centre, Newry - 21 Sept; Theatre at the Mill, Newtownabbey - 22 Sept; Strule Arts Centre,Omagh - 23 Sept; The Market Place Theatre, Armagh - 24 Sept, 2011.