The Head of Red O'Brien

John O'Dowd in 'The Head of Red O'Brien' by Mark O'Halloran

John O'Dowd in 'The Head of Red O'Brien' by Mark O'Halloran

Red O’Brien is in hospital. He is lying in a bed and is dreaming. A projector throws scenes of water, submarines, oranges onto the wall above his head. The significance of these images is eventually revealed in a monologue, and explained in terms of his trauma following an incident of domestic violence. He has been stabbed in the head by his wife, Mary. Following the stabbing, he entered a wonderful world without words: of sounds and sensations all the more vivid for not being literalised by language, and as he tells the audience his story, we must therefore assume his version of events is definitively subjective.

This does lead to certain problems with our response to Red and his situation. While his description of his behaviour certainly suggests there might well be good reason for his wife to stab him in the head, particularly his obsession with the film of The Hunt for Red October, there is a very real sense we are not hearing the whole story. Red comes across as fairly likeable: maybe a little simple, apparently fairly forgiving given this is not the first time he has seemingly been physically abused by his wife. He tells his story of their courtship, marriage, and descent into abusive dysfuncationality simply and clearly, only lapsing into heady metaphysical rumination near the end. As portrayed by John O’Dowd, he seems unthreatening and faintly comical. Rae Penelope Visser’s direction gives no sense we shouldn’t trust him.

But the other shoe has yet to drop. The Head of Red O’Brien is part one of a two-part series by Mark O’Halloran, the second of which, Mary Motorhead, is due to open following the closing of part one in three weeks. Inevitably, there must be more to this story than we are hearing. Among the taxonomy of clinical conditions listed by Red as he begins to speak to us is "amnesia", and it proves something of a distraction (or is it the point?) to find ourselves wondering if all of this is just some kind of transference or delusion. “Imagination can do far worse things than reality’s ever tried”, says Red: so, too, can memory, particularly post-traumatic (false?) memory, and it just seems that O’Halloran is cheating just a little bit too much with this ‘to be continued’ gambit. Domestic abuse is too provocative a subject to treat like a chapter-play.

How do we respond to this play in isolation? Red’s identification with Sean Connery in The Hunt for Red October centres on baldness, homophobia, and stoicism. He replays the “Hold!” scene for us with gusto as Mike O’Halloran’s lights and Mark Long’s sound ramp up to underline the importance of this image of the wizened submarine commander facing down the torpedo with steady determination. Red is determined to ‘hold’ as well - to stick to his plan. But is this a good thing? Is his encounter with the happy, musical world without words ("aphasia" is another clinical term he throws at us) a redemption, a retreat, or an excuse? It’s hard to know. Again, as played and directed, we’re asked to like Red, or at least feel sympathy for him, but in spite of being so explicitly inside his head, we come away feeling that we really don’t know him, or why he’s here, or if we really can understand the meaning of his dreams.

Harvey O'Brien

  • Review
  • Theatre

The Head of Red O'Brien by Mark O'Halloran

11-29 January, 2011

Produced by TrueWest Theatre
In Bewley's Café Theatre

Directed by Rae Visser

Composer: Mark Long

Lighting: Mike O’Halloran

Visual imagery: Ronan Casey

With: John O'Dowd