'Siege' by Ciarda Tobin, presented as part of Limerick Unfringed 2012.

'Siege' by Ciarda Tobin, presented as part of Limerick Unfringed 2012.

In May 2011 the newly renovated Belltable Arts Centre in Limerick presented two ‘Scratch’ theatre nights. Funded by the Arts Council, the aim of the project was to provide five theatre companies with a site where they could perform embryonic work and receive audience feedback. Siege is one of the productions to emerge from the ‘Scratch’ incubator.

Ciarda Tobin’s play is set in a Limerick city housing estate devastated by violent crime. The plot hinges on an unconventional scheme – invoking the Trojan Horse – devised by local godfather Mark ‘Mouse’ Foley to import drugs. The action shifts between the present of Helen’s burgeoning relationship with Mouse and the recent past of her life with Pa, including the birth of their daughter, Whitney. When Whitney inadvertently triggers a tragic accident that exposes Mouse’s plan, she and Helen desperately flee as Mouse viciously hunts them down.

Audiences sit on three sides of the stage. On the fourth side, a large screen displays Miriam Garcia Mortell’s visual production (including photography by Zeb Moore) which helps to evoke the play’s switching locales – varying from a sitting room to a pub to a toilet – in place of a set.

Director Marie Boylan rigorously exploits the actors’ proximity to the audience. From his explosive entry, Pa (Aidan Crowe), repeatedly confronts and accuses the audience. (His opening line of “I don’t know what ye’re looking at!” sets the tone.) As he paces the rim of the stage, aggressively eyeballing the audience, it feels like Pa is repeatedly punching the fourth wall. Boylan’s direction matches the frenetic speed of the script and the transitions (executed by the actors) between the play’s episodic scenes are almost immediate.

The cast of three all wear white runners, tracksuit bottoms and either a T-shirt or a hoody. Joanne Ryan’s main parts are as Helen’s mother and as Mouse’s grandmother, playing each with suitably benevolent concern. Ryan’s depiction of the latter character, while swerving police questions about her grandson, includes a cunning, protracted elaboration on the nature of her hallucinations (which feature a reprimand from a nun on the quality of her kitchen cutlery) craftily designed to divert attention. It proves one of the production’s comic high points.

On stage for almost the entire play, Helen is dubbed the ‘Déjà Vu Diva’ by DJ Anthony for her insistence on singing Whitney’s Houston’s 'I Will Always Love You' at a nightly karaoke event. Although Murray injects pathos into her rendition of the song, Murray’s Helen is strangely diffident. This jars with the spry, resolute character drawn by Tobin and creates an inconsistency with the ferocity demanded of Helen when she makes a heroic, irreversible decision at the play’s climax.

Aidan Crowe’s portrayal of Pa dominates this production, offering his seething menace directed at an indifferent society but also the character’s brittle humanity in his relationship with Helen. This is mirrored in the way Crowe captures the conflict between Pa’s defiance (“It’s easy when you’re at your desk to point a finger”) and his powerlessness (“It was like watching it happen in slow motion,” he says of the unfolding tragedy). But Crowe’s range is challenged by the requirement of playing five characters and his representation of Whitney, for example, veers towards caricature.

When Helen’s mother, realising that a rampaging Mouse is chasing Helen and Whitney, drops to her knees in prayer, lighting designer Dave O’Brien saturates the stage in the glow of an enormous sacred heart light. Throughout the production, indeed, O’Brien’s lighting and Andre McGowan’s sound design coalesce with Mortell’s visuals to ratchet up the dramatic tension, especially when conveying the claustrophobia and terror of entrapment in a burning house.

Tobin’s raw script sensitively tries to humanise the complexities behind gangland tabloid headlines, ambitiously weaving Greek mythology – Helen of Troy’s abduction by Paris, the Trojan War, her return to Menelaus – into a distinctly Limerick idiom. Subtle exposition (Helen overhears the details of Mouse’s importation scheme from gossiping punters in the toilet of the karaoke bar, for example) chimes with a restrained exploration of official disdain for the characters’ plight – encapsulated in the detached response of Joanne Ryan’s emergency control operator to Helen’s frantic phone call in the final scene.

While Siege occasionally touches on the factors that meshed to create the world in which the characters find themselves (“This used to be countryside,” says Pa. “Decay sets in when you’re not looking.”), Tobin quickly zooms back in on the personal as though reluctant to slow the hurtling pace of the plot in case she loses the audience’s attention. This is a misstep as a clearer sense of the wider context informing their environment and a fuller probing of the brutality behind euphemisms like “collateral damage” (used by Pa) might offer a deeper insight into the titular mentality ensnaring the characters.
It’s a minor reservation in a production that suggests the seeds of the ‘Scratch’ initiative are bearing fruit.

Brendan Daly is a freelance arts journalist and critic for publications in Ireland and the U.S.

  • Review
  • Theatre

Siege by Ciarda Tobin

16 - 18 October, 2012

Produced by Limerick Unfringed
In Belltable Arts Centre

Directed by Marie Boylan

Lighting Design: Dave O’Brien

Sound Design: Andre McGowan

A.V. Production: Miriam Garcia Mortell
With: Aidan Crowe, Erica Murray, Joanne Ryan


Presented as part of Limerick Unfringed Festival 2012.