Galway Theatre Festival: Blackbird

Mephisto Theatre Co presents 'Blackbrird' by David Harrower. Photo: Martin Maguire

Mephisto Theatre Co presents 'Blackbrird' by David Harrower. Photo: Martin Maguire

Mephisto Theatre Co presents 'Blackbrird' by David Harrower. Photo: Martin Maguire

Mephisto Theatre Co presents 'Blackbrird' by David Harrower. Photo: Martin Maguire

Mephisto Theatre Co presents 'Blackbrird' by David Harrower. Photo: Martin Maguire

Mephisto Theatre Co presents 'Blackbrird' by David Harrower. Photo: Martin Maguire

Mephisto Theatre Company treads carefully the gangplank that is the fine line dividing the taboo from the disputable in their efficient production for Galway Theatre Festival of David Harrower’s hypnotic and gothic little one-act horror, Blackbird.

Una is twenty-six years old and she has just tracked down an ex-lover, Ray, in his nondescript job for a nondescript company. Amongst the inauspicious detritus of the work’s grimy cafeteria, Una confronts Ray with the unresolved aspects of the reason their love-affair collapsed: we learn that when they had apparently consummated their affair for the first time Ray had left her on her own afterwards to go drinking. Una was bereft, lonely and depressed in the drab B&B bedroom they had rented for the occasion and she decides to return home. So far, so ordinary. Then it is revealed that their sexual liaison fifteen years before was when she was twelve and he was in his forties... Why does Una want to see him? How will Ray justify his behaviour? How has the victim coped with abuse? How reliable are their memories of these events anyway? In the revisiting of their affair, Blackbird proposes that both protagonists have suffered since the event, although not necessarily in the way an audience might presume.

Mephisto Theatre CoBlackbird is a controversial play because it describes the sexual relations between a child and an adult without being easily judgmental. It is as if Harrower sees himself as a ‘curious eye’ rather than arbiter of morality, and this role of author as observer rather than judge is intriguing because it assumes intelligence and imagination in the audience. Disturbingly, Harrower does not explicitly condemn the abuser and allows Ray a platform from which to express the suffering he endured during his prison sentence. Harrower then has the characters argue that the pre-pubescent Una, “sick of being treated as a child” might have been proactive in attracting the attention of the abuser, even being in possession of what the two describe as “suspiciously adult yearnings” that were then exploited by Ray.

Unlike Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet and others, admittedly from a different era, Blackbird does not ratify or justify adult sexual relations with children: the explicit descriptions of events at the centre of the affair is not sensationalised, titillating nor gratuitous and the destruction wrought on both characters is grave. In this particular production, actor Emma O’Grady certainly emphasises her character’s memories of the physical discomfort as well as the emotional hurt associated with both the abuse and subsequent desertion by Ray. But, in addition to its tremendous denouement, the heart of the tension in the play is that Blackbird finds, and presents publicly, complexities and subtleties in something that most people actually consider very simple: adults having sex with children is wrong.

Director Mark Westbrook encourages accurate performances from actors Ian Watt and Emma O’Grady. The script’s staccato, simple poetry – stark and incomplete sentences that evoke the enormous emotional tension that must be simmering in each character – suits Watt’s stuttering, terse Scottish brogue. What is strange in this production, however, is the lack of chemistry or tension between the two, not animosity or love or even curiosity. This is particularly odd in light of the characters’ intense relationship in the past. Perhaps this lack of connection is intentional bearing in mind the writer takes a seemingly ambivalent moral standpoint, but the slightly studied exchanges between the two seem to take a little from the pace and drive of the work. There is a degree of frisson lacking.

However, Mephisto make good use of the newly renovated An Taibhdhearc in Galway. Designer Mike O’Halloran’s detailed and realist set is a box of grey slabs redolent of the prison Ray had been released from and which traps the two actors in a depressingly claustrophobic and rubbish-strewn canteen: a metaphor, clearly of their repressed and chaotic lives. The outside world is hinted at by the occasional voices off and figures passing by the canteen’s opaque glass emphasising how sometimes the darkest complexities are hidden among a most mundane, prosaic normality.

The risks Harrower takes in Blackbird fascinate: the play questions, challenges and defies conventions, and it allows an audience a glimpse into tumultuously contentious and difficult emotional territories. That’s what theatre should do. Mephisto Theatre Company, dependably brave in the scope of the productions they take on, have gone a long way towards realising this darkly disturbing play for the Galway stage.

Matthew Harrison

  • Review
  • Theatre

Galway Theatre Festival: Blackbird by David Harrower

4/5 October 2013

Produced by Mephisto Theatre Co
In An Taibhdhearc, Galway

Directed by Mark Westbrook

Set & Lighting Design: Mike O'Halloran

Costumes: Caroline Lynch

With: Emma O'Grady, Ian Watt, Orla Gaffney, Helen Gregg & Paul Hannon


Presented as part of the 2013 Galway Theatre Festival.