The Blue Boy

Brokentalkers' The Blue Boy as part of Ulster Bank Dublin Theatre Festival

Brokentalkers' The Blue Boy as part of Ulster Bank Dublin Theatre Festival

The publication of the 2009 Ryan Report, marked the result of an inquiry into the abuse of generations of children, including allegations of abuse from sixty residential industrial schools operated by the Catholic Church, funded and supervised by the Department of Education. The children were the cast-offs of a society that, it may be allowed to assume, thought that they were being given a chance to learn and grow, and instead were the captive victims of a non-secular ruling class who were given power over and above the laws of that society.
One of the few secular witnesses was the grandfather of co-director Gary Keegan of Brokentalkers: an undertaker by trade, he was often called to the industrial school in Artane, to measure the bodies of dead boys for their coffins. Keegan grew up in an estate built on the Artane’s grounds, and the title of the show is taken from a local legend of a ghost called the Blue Boy, purported to have been a lad from the school who had died in mysterious circumstances. The building loomed largely, literally and figuratively, in the locality, and one imagines that the spine-tingling quality of the story of a lost dead boy haunting the grounds stood in for the larger feeling of something that had once gone horribly wrong, and continued to haunt the community.
The production weaves in Keegan’s personal story with that of those who had experienced the abuse firsthand, played in voiceover. The cast, masked hauntingly to create similar frozen visages of bewildered dread, represent the voiceless mass of children who were systematically beaten, starved, and sexually abused. Their movements represent a horrifying kind of muted, terrorised rote, amplified literally by loud, disturbing sounds, thanks to Jack Cawley's eerie design. Lucy Andrews and David Fagan's set is a looming construction of cold white tile, as chilling to look upon as it must feel, a perfect rendering that stands in for the soulless custodians of the children. Quotes and video clips play on the scrim that separates them from us, with the occasional live music accompaniment.
There is a lot going on, and often, there is too much. Not ‘too much’ as it may be taken to mean conceptually, for even one of the audio clips of the survivors of the abuse, is indeed too much, too much to fathom, too much to psychically take in. Rather, there was so much that the production used to contextualise the time period — video clips of the aftermath of the 1932 International Eucharist Congress in Ireland, of a Seventies chat show featuring the Artane Boys’ Band, a Pathé newsreel of the Boys in a gymnastic display — that it served to take away, rather than add to, the impact of the story being told. The life stories of the survivors unfolded in a vacuum, with no help to hand, and the world outside didn’t exist; to bring in that world takes away from the loneliness and barbarity of those histories.
Those personal histories are harrowing, not only in the actual facts, but in the quality of the voices recounting them: even the most matter-of-fact timbre couldn’t conceal the deep, deep scars that have been hewn by the experiences of the speakers. This is the true power of such documentary theatre, this evidence of raw reality, and the challenge is to wed that effectively with live performance. When a story is as huge as is the one told by the Ryan Report, it actually begs to made smaller, simpler, clearer, and utterly direct. Here, when the production focused on those stories, married to the harrowing movements of the actors, there was a feeling of pathos and overwhelming outrage. When it strayed from this central conceit, the narrative lost its impetus, an impetus that really doesn’t need much to keep it going.

Susan Conley is a cultural critic and author.

  • Review
  • Theatre

The Blue Boy by Brokentalkers

8-16 October, 2011

Produced by Brokentalkers
In The Lir

Devised and Directed by Feidlim Cannon and Gary Keegan

Movement Director Eddie Kay

Musical Director and Composer Seán Millar

Video Design Kilian Waters

Lighting Design Sarah Jane Shiels

Sound Design Jack Cawley

Set and Costume Design Lucy Andrews & David Fagan

Performers:  Karen Anderson, Dylan Coburn Gray, Eddie Kay, Gary Keegan, Jessica Kennedy,
Megan Kennedy, Stephen Lehane, Mary-Louise McCarthy

Musicians: Lucy Andrews, Ronan Dooney, Kim V Porceilli