I Am Of Ireland at the Old Red Lion Theatre
Anthony Walker-Cook reviews I Am Of Ireland, a new station of the nation play by Seamus Finnegan.
I Am of Ireland, a new work by Seamus Finnegan, certainly believes itself to be a new state of the nation play. In the intimate Old Red Lion pub and theatre audiences can expect to see families divided by religion, friends reunited at a funeral and the decline of Ulster Loyalism. There are fleeting moments in Finnegan’s play where the troubles of Ireland’s past (and potentially future) are vividly realised: a series of short stories interweave as a mixed sequence of vignettes. Some of these, especially where Euan Macnaughton monologues about his transition into an IRA terrorist, are emotive, humorous and through-provoking. However, these are marred by a hasty and jumpy production and, whilst a few of these stories are effective, more fall slightly flat.
The Old Red Lion is a charming building and the theatre space is compact and simple. Chairs, crosses and a faint picture of Westminster are suspended behind the stage, which is marked by a square of white tape. Characters move two chairs and a table to denote different scenes but the staging goes no further. With this somewhat empty production, then, the emphasis falls heavily on the actors and their portrayal of the different scenarios to deliver a rich sense of Ireland. They must create, in no particular order: a hospital, a graveside, a public park, a jail cell or a convent, each with its own expectations, atmospheres and local residents. We might expect this from a play that in its title suggests a definition of what Ireland is: a living and forceful personality or mentality. Some of the actors achieve this with ease, an indication of director Ken McClymont’s familiarity with Finnegan’s material (this is their eighth production at the Old Red Lion). Any scene with Shenagh Govan automatically feels assured and confident, her dry humour matched by her continued sense of a life lived and lessons learned. The only actor with a consistent monologue, Euan Macnaughton is charming but also deceptive, and as we learn about his life Finnegan puts audiences is an unsettling position: we are never sure if we should like the man that became a terrorist and, at the very least, we must acknowledge that we liked him before he revealed the truth.
Angus Castle-Doughty brings an unsettled energy to his scenes, whilst Sean Stewart has an air of Irish buoyancy. Richard Fish shows the most variety across his performances, from the camp Bishop to the broken Sammy Nelson. However, whilst these performances are enjoyable, the scenes themselves are too quick and characters are forgettable. I Am Of Ireland makes you constantly feel as if you should sit up and listen intently to every word by the actors, but this is difficult. Just as audiences begin to warm to the scenario of two friends reunited at the passing of a friend and moving away from their home-town, the scene changes. Add to this some problems with accents – especially by Saria Steel whose Scottish tongue uncomfortably creeps in during the majority of her scenes – and what emerges is a faux poignancy. An extra cast member or two would be welcome: Steele’s turn as the (supposedly) elderly café owner would simply be better handled with an actress that looks older, whilst Jerome Ngonadi’s portrayal as the Mother Superior feels misplaced, the humour is mutedly present but there is no comedic juxtaposition of religious delicacy and gender expectations.
The most successful bits of I Am Of Ireland, as already mentioned, are the monologues by Macnaughton. Given the time to develop an attractive speaker, audiences are drawn into the personal story of what Ireland meant to this one individual and how it is now stuck in a sense of stasis: ‘Nothing’s changed […] I’m older, I’m disillusioned…’ During one of his monologues Macnaughton mentions the ‘quagmire of history’. Sadly, I Am Of Ireland has become trapped in its own confused marshland.
I Am Of Ireland runs at the Old Red Lion Pub until the 30th June, 2018.