Christ Deliver Us!

Brian Bennett, Seamus Brennan, Sean Flanagan, Robert Bannon, Keith Burke and Stephen O’Rourke in the Abbey Theatre production of CHRIST DELIVER US! by Thomas Kilroy. Photo: Ros Kavanagh

Brian Bennett, Seamus Brennan, Sean Flanagan, Robert Bannon, Keith Burke and Stephen O’Rourke in the Abbey Theatre production of CHRIST DELIVER US! by Thomas Kilroy. Photo: Ros Kavanagh

Eleanor Methven and Aoife Duffin in the Abbey Theatre production of CHRIST DELIVER US! by Thomas Kilroy, directed by Wayne Jordan. Photo: Ros Kavanagh

Eleanor Methven and Aoife Duffin in the Abbey Theatre production of CHRIST DELIVER US! by Thomas Kilroy, directed by Wayne Jordan. Photo: Ros Kavanagh

There’s a moment in Thomas Kilroy’s new play when a group of clerics gather to discuss the fate of a boy who is suspected of drawing ‘filthy pictures’ in his classmate’s copy. As they huddle around a table it’s hard not to be reminded of other images currently appearing in the media depicting the Irish bishops summoned to Rome. Fr Seamus (Hickey) grows increasingly agitated with the emerging consensus that Michael Grainger (Monaghan) must be punished. He rises to his feet, shaking, to condemn his Church in an impassioned stutter: “Hypocrites! The lot of us!... Hiding our transgression, secret sins! Off with it! Off with it! The truth! The truth will out!”

Although the play is set in a Diocesan secondary school sometime in the late 1940s/early 50s, Kilroy knows more than his characters do. And Christ Deliver Us!, based on Frank Wedekin’s Spring Awakening, feels very much like a response to recent revelations of abuse in Irish culture, most notably documented in the Ryan and Murphy reports. The play anticipates other events at the Abbey this year which will focus on similar issues.

However, anyone interested in a sensational blame game will be sorely disappointed. There’s plenty of anger in Kilroy’s text, but there’s no simplification of history. In his portrayal of a group of young people who hunger for knowledge, Kilroy does not just point a finger at the Church or State. Instead, he takes as his focus a provincial community of individuals, all of whom feel restricted in one way or another, including those who are ostensibly in charge. Even though the playwright does not seem to think that power just comes from the top, or that discipline is always a bad thing, he appears more certain that the greatest crime of all is the curtailment of curiosity.

Michael, the amateur pornographer, and Winnie (Duffin) are the main voices of dissent in the play, precisely because they want to know more than anyone else. Michael knows about sex, has read Darwin, and even emotively rejects God by his friend Mossy’s (Kinlan) grave. When it comes to education, Winnie hasn’t had the same opportunities as Michael, but she is equally interested in the world around her. At one point she asks him to hit her with a stick, not necessarily because she wants to be hurt, but because she is interested in experiences that make her feel alive. Unfortunately, their community cannot support their curiosity – not simply because they choose not to, but because they don’t seem to know how - and the action steadily builds to a tragic conclusion.

Eamonn Owens, Diarmaid Murtagh and Aaron Monaghan in CHRIST DELIVER US!In different hands, Christ Deliver Us! might feel like an austere, even hopeless work. But director Wayne Jordan never allows the darker sentiments to dominate. Although the play is constructed around powerful tensions between males and females, children and adults, rich and poor, the Church, State and its people, Jordan doesn’t permit these to rest as monolithic oppositions. So, even when these differences are clearly demarcated on the stage - such as when the girls and boys are separated while talking about their burgeoning sexuality – the boundaries always seem permeable. Moreover, Jordan directs the transitions between scenes so that all of a sudden various factions are swept up and off the stage, almost in perfect synch, like a shoal of unlikely fish caught up in a current they cannot quite control. It is Fr Seamus who tells Michael in the closing moments that we are “born under the sign of a question-mark,” and Jordan remains faithful to this ambivalence.

One of Jordan’s greatest strengths is ensemble work. He uses this to powerful effect here. Although many of the characters speak of oppression, his cast of twenty-three often move balletically around the stage, revelling in their corporeality, especially when they move together. And even though a hurling match descends into violence at the end of the piece, more often than not the boys play sport like they are dancing. In one scene, they do dance: under the tutelage of a Christian Brother (Murtagh) the boys are taught to waltz. Inevitably the students laugh, the class falls apart, and the group quickly dispels. All but two, that is, who want to experiment alone. A gorgeous moment ensues, during which the pair improvise their own routine, jostling down stage, before shuffling into a lingering kiss. The sequence is more Billy Elliot than Dancing at Lughnasa, and the resonance is rich.

There are many other moments that stick in the mind as well as the throat: Winnie blowing a dandelion high above her head and into the darkened auditorium; lights crashing to the ground when Michael falls to his apparent death; rain soaking the congregation at Mossy’s funeral, not to mention the mourners’ stylized diagonal formation.

The cast gives a terrific performance, although Duffin, Monaghan and Kinlan deserve special mention. Monaghan speaks nihilism like a Shakespearian love sonnet, selling it to us above religiosity.

The set design is simple but effective. Despite the predominantly grey palette, the large open spaces allow the action to breathe. Grass and wild flowers shoot through crevasses in the rolling set, reminding us that some things can never be tamed. Similarly, even though the costumes are typically dark, a splash of pastels here and there creates a feeling of warmth and possibility.

At one point in the first act, the Canon (Conway) tries to defend the boys by claiming “’tis like they have a whole language of their own.” His comment can be seen to apply to all the young people in the play who communicate volumes through their hopes, desires, flesh and blood, as Fr Seamus eventually advises Michael to continuing doing. The same might be said of the young cast and creative team that give Kilroy’s play life. While the playwright turns to the past to illuminate contemporary concerns, Jordan’s production provides an aesthetic counterpoint that looks to the future: although restrained, the action evocatively pulses, feelings continually stir, and almost everything that can moves and is moved.

Fintan Walsh is a Research Fellow in Drama Studies at Trinity College Dublin.

  • Review
  • Theatre

Christ Deliver Us! by Thomas Kilroy

16 February - 13 March, 2010

Produced by Abbey Theatre
In Abbey Theatre

Written by Thomas Kilroy, after Wedekind's Spring Awakening

Directed by Wayne Jordan

Set design: Naomi Wilkinson

Lighting design: Sinéad Wallace

Costume design: Joan O’Cleary

Music composed by Caoimhín O Raghallaigh

Choreography: Colin Dunne

With: Aoife Duffin, Liz Fitzgibbon, Caoilfhionn Dunne, Ruth McGill, Aaron Monaghan, Laurence Kinlan, Eleanor Methven, Cathy Belton, Tom Hickey, Denis Conway, Pater Hanly, Michael McElhatton, Karl Quinn Diarmuid Murtagh, Keith Burke, Gavin Fullam, Seamus Brennan, Eamonn Owens, Brian Bennett, Robert Bannon, Sean Flanagan, Simon Boyle, Stephen O’Rourke.