Farewell / Half a Glass of Water

Photos: John Haynes 2012

Photos: John Haynes 2012

Photos: John Haynes 2012

Photos: John Haynes 2012

Photos: John Haynes 2012

Photos: John Haynes 2012

Photos: John Haynes 2012

Photos: John Haynes 2012

How thrilling is it, fourteen years after Field Day’s last theatre production, to be handed a programme illustrated by the distinguished painter Basil Blackshaw, image-maker to the company since its inception in 1980; to look inside and spy among the creative team the names of such internationally acknowledged artists as designer Bob Crowley, photographer John Haynes, pianist Barry Douglas, composer Neil Martin, actor/director Stephen Rea, academic and writer Seamus Deane - the latter two now the remaining directors of the company.

On a bleak December night, a steady stream of people are making their way along the city walls to The Playhouse to witness the long-awaited re-emergence of the Derry-based company, which, at the height of the Troubles, redefined Irish theatre and established itself as a channel for rigorous intellectual, political and cultural debate.

The company has awakened from its slumbers to raise the curtain on The Playhouse's contribution to Derry-Londonderry UK City of Culture 2013. In the intervening years, the city has changed beyond recognition - and so have Field Day audiences and perspectives. In acknowledgment of changing times, new, emerging voices have been welcomed into the fold: David Ireland and Clare Dwyer Hogg, the first woman to have a play produced by Field Day. The company publicly declares that it makes no assertions on behalf of these writers beyond recognising their differing imaginative responses to the new reality.

Photo: John Haynes 2012

This double bill of short plays offers contrasting takes on themes of retribution and dealing with the past. Dwyer Hogg’s debut play Farewell is clearly inspired by the shooting dead of IRA volunteer, Sinn Fein press officer and MI5 informer Denis Donaldson in Donegal almost seven years ago; Ireland’s Half a Glass of Water is a chilling reflection on contemporary moral turpitude, a sinister, low-key encounter between a terminally ill rapist and his young victim. Ireland’s play was commissioned and produced in 2011 as part of 'Something Borrowed', the Abbey Theatre’s annual short play reading series, while Dwyer Hogg is currently a participant in the Abbey’s 2012 New Playwrights Programme.

The evening begins – and ends – in silence, the hushed atmosphere book-ended by Martin’s plangent chord sequences, played with exquisite delicacy by Douglas. First up is Farewell in which Dwyer Hogg, a young London-based journalist, takes us down a well-trodden path. Rea is John, a burnt-out volunteer and informer, holed up in a squalid hide-out, tensed for the knock on the door which will end his life. For company he has only the ghosts of two of his victims  – Patrick (Charlie Bonner) and Mark (Eugene O’Hare) – with each of whom he has a very different but equally painful personal connection.

Crowley’s peeling, blood-coloured set groans of isolation and neglect, a place where secrets and memories lurk in dark corners and the light of day has been squeezed out. Its single window looks out onto a desolate landscape from which John knows his killer will eventually emerge. Not even the arrival from the outside world of his wife Anne – a beautifully paced and judged performance by Bríd Brennan – can alleviate the gloom.

John is beset by poetic visions – he even sees the tussocks of Donegal grass in a different way from other people. But his words fall stiffly and unnaturally, prompting one to wonder whether this is simply a device to communicate the fact that, for all his misdemeanours, he has a soul. Rea's hunched body language and joyless facial expression perfectly capture a man living with a life sentence, though there are moments when the double responsibility of performer and director seems to weigh heavily upon him.

Bonner and O’Hare give subtly nuanced performances in neatly structured exchanges between the living and the dead. However, these compact little scenes are somewhat overwhelmed by weighty chunks of confessional exposition as John acquaints Anne with the details of his murky past, of which she is conveniently unaware. In a moment of shared tenderness, he sends her upstairs to get some rest. Then comes the end – sudden, swift and entirely expected.

In Half a Glass of Water, Rea hands over the directing reins to Lisa Dwyer Hogg – who, interestingly, gave an outstanding performance as a young victim of abuse in Prime Cut’s 2011 production of Blackbird. Instantly, the fine actor in him rises. In this terse, spare restorative justice exchange, he exercises heart-stopping control as Eli, a middle-aged paedophile, who is dying of cancer.

Photo: John Haynes 2012In a bleak hospital room, he sits quietly at the far end of a table from Whitney, an agitated young man, who has come not merely to visit him in his last days but to tell him that he loves him. What unfolds between them is a ghastly revelation of the abuse of a five-year old, whose parents themselves subjected him to unimaginable cruelty, while inviting into their home a string of associates intent on inflicting their perverted fantasies upon him. Unsurprisingly, that same child has grown into a deeply damaged young adult, beset with severe psychosexual problems, here given voice in Conor MacNeill’s disturbingly perky portrayal.

Ireland is ferocious and without mercy in his creation of scenes of sickening sexual violence and depravity, using unflinchingly explicit language, which some may find upsetting. The more carried away Whitney becomes in expressing his gruesome intentions towards a young female work colleague, the stronger is the almost whispered control exerted by his manipulative abuser. In 20 short minutes, the noose tightens on a horribly dependent mutual relationship, building into a suffocating, well crafted piece that plumbs the slimy moral depths of life in the twenty-first century.

Opinion has been quite sharply divided about the content and quality of these two companion pieces. It is clear from Dwyer Hogg's, arguably surprising, choice of subject matter that issues relating to the conflict remain unresolved for many of that generation who were teenagers when the ceasefires were called. On the other hand, others of a similar or slightly earlier vintage, like Ireland, seem hell bent on going to extreme lengths to avoid mention of those dark days, though in this case the resultant piece carries equally nightmarish scenes of violence, albeit in an entirely different context.

Jane Coyle is a Belfast-based freelance arts journalist and critic, who also contributes to The Irish Times, The Stage, Culture Northern Ireland and BBC Radio Ulster.

  • Review
  • Theatre

Farewell / Half a Glass of Water by Clare Dwyer Hogg / David Ireland

3 - 8 December, 2012

Produced by Field Day
In The Playhouse, Derry

Directors: Stephen Rea & Lisa Dwyer Hogg

Designer: Bob Crowley

Costumes: Eimer Ni Mhaoldomhnaigh

Sound Design: Sam Jackson

Composer: Neil Martin

Piano: Barry Douglas

With: Stephen Rea, Bríd Brennan, Eugene O'Hare, Charlie Bonner, Conor McNeill