The Shadowmen

Jack Quinn, Abby Oliveira, Sean Donegan and Matt Jennings in 'The Shadowmen'. Photo: Max Beer

Jack Quinn, Abby Oliveira, Sean Donegan and Matt Jennings in 'The Shadowmen'. Photo: Max Beer

Sean Donegan in 'The Shadowmen' presented by Sole Purpose Productions. Photo: Max Beer

Sean Donegan in 'The Shadowmen' presented by Sole Purpose Productions. Photo: Max Beer

Poet Debbie Caulfield works with composer and musician Réa Curran on this carefully researched fable of climate change and sustainable development. The text originated as a long poem, but the underlying science is accurate and is the fruit of the writer’s collaboration with the Northern Ireland Environment Agency, the University of Ulster, and Queen’s University. Though primarily aimed at schoolchildren aged 12 and upwards, evening performances were open to the general public and each show was followed by a panel discussion with representatives of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, environmental groups, and the author.

The set is a wasteland with rough scrub, one thin tree, and objects from a dystopic future: rusty shopping carts, fragments of tools, the detritus of modern life. Downstage are three musical instruments, painted to blend with this landscape. The performance opens with a low-pitched humming emerging from within the apparently empty set. After a couple of minutes, the seven actors and musicians emerge from the earth and the story of Tom the Estimator (played by Sean Donegan) begins to unfold. Tom estimates for large planning corporations, and on this occasion has been asked to estimate the number of trees on a site under development. He is troubled by a dream encounter with Mariah (Abby Oliviera), a Mother Earth figure who wrapped him in a cloak, and identified him as a seer. In his meeting with Brickfielder (Matt Jennings) and Harmattan (Jack Quinn), both of whom are named after winds, he discovers that the plans for the development include the cutting down of thousands of trees. The characters debate how to save the earth, the role of technology in that process, the devastating global consequences of the consumer society, and the question of whether humankind is faced with annihilation, each expressing a different attitude. Following visions of various tomorrows, the play culminates in the cast burying themselves once more in the earth in a powerful final image of extinction.

Produced by Sole Purpose, this collaborative work brings together poetry, music, and physical theatre. The creation of stage images is one of the strengths of the work, and has its roots in director Steve Batts’ work as a choreographer. These guide the audience through the storyline: the cast emerging from the earth, returning to it, and the musicians singing while the characters battle through rhythmic and repeated movements, with the clay and garbage of the set. The original music by Curran introduces the ‘mondophone’, a reconstructed piano which creates an oddly haunting sound.

There are minor criticisms that could be made, such as the backdrop to the beautifully barren set being black drapes rather than painted flats, which would have jarred less and would have picked up the dramatic shadows cast by the lighting. The main weakness is in the writing, however, which betrays its origins as a poem rather than a performance text. However, this is a cleverly constructed work that is likely to appeal to its target audience, and that communicates important and complex information in an accessible form.

Lisa Fitzpatrick lectures in Drama at the University of Ulster. 


  • Review
  • Theatre

The Shadowmen by Debbie Caulfield and Réa Curran

13 - 17 October, 2009

Produced by Sole Purpose Productions
In Waterside Theatre, Derry

Directed by Steve Batts

Music by Réa Curran

Set design by Maoliosa Boyle, Dan Doherty

Costume design by Helen Quigley

Lighting design by Niall Cranney, Mel Coneely

With: Sean Donegan, Matt Jennings, Abby Oliveira, Jack Quinn, and musicians Réa Curran, Gary Cunningham, Krzysztof Malinski.