Directed by Adrian Dunbar with a clear empathy for the text, this rehearsed reading in the Elmwood Hall reminds us that not only is Freedom of the City one of Brian Friel’s most politically pertinent plays, it's also one of his angriest.
Set after a fictional civil rights march in Derry in January 1972, three ordinary protestors, after fleeing from police truncheons and tear gas, hide out unwittingly in the Guild Hall, the civic seat of establishment (i.e. unionist) power in the city. That fact that Friel makes clear their chilling fates from the off makes the play all the more sickeningly poignant.
The characters are Michael the earnest, educated marcher who doesn’t want any trouble and naively believes that those in power will eventually demur to reasonable demand; Lily the beleaguered but buoyant mother of 11 kids, who’s marching because there’s nothing else to be done; and the ‘hooligan’ element represented by Skinner, the kind who Michael thinks is ruining it for everyone.
'How will they ever trust us?' he laments as Skinner helps himself to the contents of the lord mayor’s drinks cabinet, 'when we behave how they expect us to?!'
Though all three characters are too rounded, too believable to be mere archetypes, they do represent the didactic discourse at the heart of the play. That discourse isn’t on the wrongs of sectarianism, or even necessarily the virtue of civil rights. Very cleverly, Friel manipulates an all-too resonant scenario (the aftermath of Bloody Sunday) and enlarges the viewfinder to show this siege of three innocent Catholics as an assault by the powerful on the poor.
The convictions of Michael – who cites Ghandi, calls for 'a fair crack of the whip' and has misty-eyed reflections of dentists, lawyers and teachers marching together with ‘ordinary people’ – are inferred to be a strain of naivety that serve the system much more insidiously than any Saracen.
The matter-of-fact reflections that each character dwells on at the point of their demise are chilling in their quiet resignation. The smallness and sadness of their final thoughts really kicks you in the gut. Meanwhile, the chirruping of priests, brigadiers and high court judges represent the walls that these three tragic characters find themselves imprisoned within.
The whole format of the reading, from Dunbar’s own detached rendition of stage directions to the various interruptions of the back-line chorus, draws out the polemical essence of Freedom of the City. Dunbar’s dry description of, for example, how the corpses are arranged adds a new layer of alienation and discomfit to proceedings.
And from without the 'cage' there’s the voice of the American observer: removed from the conflict, removed from the arena of performance, making glib academic observations from a pulpit as to the nature of being poor. This clinical distancing from the events and imparting of sociological snippets serves in true epic-theatre style to draws us gradually, with each burst of patronising ‘-ology’ speak, further into the belly of the beast.
It’s no surprise that Freedom of the City was sharpened to a point by the real-life events that took place in Derry in January 1972 – the spectre of that massacre hangs everywhere. Freedom of the City isn’t just timely. In the wake of belated justice of a kind for the families of the 13 innocents gunned down 38 years ago, it’s also timeless. One can only hope this is a trial run for a full revival at the new Lyric of this bleak, beautiful and fiercely righteous play.
This play was staged at Havant Arts Centre, East Street Havant - Bench Theatre's home since 1977.
|Father Brosnan||John Blackmore|
|Police Constable||Roy Dorland|
|Dr Dodds||Debbie Money|
|Army Press Officer||Andy Rees|
|Brigadier Johnson-Hansbury||John Blackmore|
|Dr Winbourne||Roy Dorland|
|Professor Cuppley||Andy Rees|
|Stage Manager||Chris Stacey|
|Assistant Stage Manager||Annie Baillie|
|Lighting Operation||David Penrose|
|Sound Operation||Peter Woodward|
|Leaflet Design||Peter Woodward|
|Original Music||Rob Finn|
Brian Friel has been a favourite writer of mine since I appeared in the Bench production of 'Dancing at Lughnasa'. His use of language, his ability to transform ordinary voices into the voices of poets is both remarkable and affecting. The seamless transition from comedy to tragedy is the trademark of a truly great writer.
Whilst 'The Freedom of the City' is an overtly political play, concerned as it is with the political situation in Northern Ireland, it is also an essentially humanist play and it was this combination that drew me to it. In choosing any play there has to be a moment in the reading of it that moves me. Joe's death and his son's descent into disillusionment and grief in 'All My Sons'; Kattrin's final act of defiance in 'Mother Courage' and Teddy's touching, hopeless loyalty in 'Faith Healer'. This play is no exception and I don't think you'll have any problem in spotting the moment that caught me.
There is also a great deal of humour and compassion, drawn out through the three central characters, their lives and experiences. The intricate plotting of the piece too provides an intriguing theatrical experience, two or three separate areas being explored simultaneously.
I am greatly indebted to the members of the cast who have all worked extremely hard through a prohibitively short rehearsal period. It has been great fun throughout - just how theatre should be.
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The NewsMike Allen
Play so close to home
Painfully close to home. Are the British really so ready to lie and kill in defence of their domination? It rings all too true.
Brian Friel's play is set in Derry during and after a protest march. Three unarmed individuals - escaping tanks, CS gas, rubber bullets and water cannon - find themselves in the mayor's parlour. One earnest young man believes all will be well if they behave respectably, go out and tell the truth. A secure portrayal by Mike Hickman in this Bench Theatre production. A middle-aged mother of 11, even more innocent, prattles brightly and often comically about her family. Ingrid Corrigan in fine whimsical form. But another young man knows they will be shot dead. This is the most complex role and Neil Pugmire grows into it to the point where his awareness of imminent murder is palpable.
But occasionally I was more conscious of the edginess in his acting than of the edginess of the character, teetering between hardness and flippancy.
The News, 23rd January 1998
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