Stuart Graham and Judith Roddy in Decadent Theatre's production of David Harrower's 'Blackbrid.'

Stuart Graham and Judith Roddy in Decadent Theatre's production of David Harrower's 'Blackbrid.'

It is a misfortune that Decadent Theatre should choose to produce David Harrower’s play Blackbird so soon after its Irish premiere in 2007: a memorable production by Landmark Theatre Company, which made national headlines because of its controversial subject matter. Comparisons between the productions are unfair, but are nonetheless unavoidable. Blackbird is a stunning play, dense with philosophical and ethical issues about human sexuality that have not been explored with such visceral honesty since Nabakov’s novel Lolita, and Galway audiences deserve an opportunity to see such a quality contemporary drama produced on home ground. However, for an audience member still searching for the answers that Michael Barker Caven’s earlier production deliberately left hanging in the air, Andrew Flynn’s vision seems somewhat simplistic, despite the taut pace, suitably earthy design, and affecting central performances.

Blackbird is set in the staff-room of a manufacturing plant where Una (Judith Roddy) has arrived late in the evening as the factory is emptying out for the night. She is seeking out Ray (Stuart Graham), at first appearances your average, brow-beaten, low-level manager, but who is also - as soon revealed in Harrower’s unstinting dialogue - the man who sexually abused Una when she was 12. However, the straightforward moral issue of sexual abuse and paedophilia is complicated by the complex characters’ constantly shifting personalities. Una reveals her rage at being abandoned, not at being abused; Ray insists that he was not sexually attracted to the child in her, but loved her deeply for the woman she would some day become. Una confesses that she loved him too; she still loves him. Ray recoils: he has been to prison, has been through therapy, has been re-educated to understand that no matter how ‘pure’ his intent was, their relationship was wrong.

As they circle each other in the play’s tense unfolding – Ray moving away from Una; Una slowly closing in – a number of alternative interpretations offer themselves. Who, we are left asking, is the victim, who the oppressor? Harrower, brave and brutal throughout Blackbird, gives us no answers. However, Flynn’s production softens this moral neutrality somewhat. It is sensitive rather than abrasive; almost palatable rather than provocative. It is the actors' characterisations that enable this.

Stuart Graham’s cowering, repentant Ray immediately commands our sympathy. Shuffling across Owen MacCarthaigh’s soiled and seedy stage in a mouse-brown suit (costume design by Petra Breathnach), he is a broken man, despite his minor victories: the new family he has married into; the photograph in the local trade magazine. Roddy’s Una, meanwhile, is brittle and bitter, strong despite her slight physicality, prowling like a leopard about to pounce in severe stiletto boots. Roddy’s Una is a victim ready to take revenge, rightly so in the logic of the moral universe. Ray is a man who has already punished himself, who lives with his guilt every day; philosophical rationalism might argue that that is revenge enough.

Where Harrower’s play asks us to tease out the endless permutations of victim and oppressor, Decadent Theatre's production has decided for us, and leaves us with just a single question then, rather than a multiplicity of moral confusion. The question is: which of the characters is right? Is it the child scorned, all grown up now, determined to reclaim her childhood? Or the sympathetic sinner, who may have paid already for his crimes, but possibly not enough? For this viewer, there is only one answer to that question.
  • Review
  • Theatre

Blackbird by David Harrower

13 – 25 July, 2009

Produced by Decadent Theatre and Galway Arts Centre
In Nun's Island Theatre, Galway

Directed by Andrew Flynn

Set Design: Owen MacCarthaigh

Costume Design: Petra Breathnach

Lighting Design: Adam Fitzsimons

Sound Design: Jack Cawley

With: Stuart Graham and Judith Roddy