Gary Mitchell may be in danger of being thought, on this side of the Irish Sea at least, a one-trick pony. This is to miss the point: his trick is not to set his plays amid the unionist/loyalist community of north Belfast which is his home, nor even that he fills a yawning gap by dramatically articulating the political perspective of that community. Mitchell's achievement is that he puts his characters on the horns of dilemmas which have at once a social and political dimension and a more immediately personal aspect.
In the case of his 1998 play As The Beast Sleeps, now at the Tricycle Theatre in its revived Belfast Lyric production from this spring, Kyle – a UDA foot-soldier left at a loose end by the peace process – must not only confront the general breach of his principles when he is instructed to head a "punishment squad" within the loyalist community, but must directly address the eventuality of being ordered to "do" those closest to him.
Mitchell's greatest strength, though, is that he can faithfully map so many of the tangled and conflicting vectors of a complex situation. His play covers a whole range of areas of actual legitimacy, formal legitimacy (as the books of a loyalist club which is going straight continue to be cooked), the continuum between the armed and the political struggles, and senses of duty to the cause and also of what one is owed in return by that cause. As in his play Trust, the supposed enemy – Catholicism/nationalism/republicanism – simply does not appear; his protagonists are more than able to screw themselves up comprehensively whilst losing sight of their supposed overriding goals.
John Sheehan's production remains as faithful as Mitchell's script to the pace and tone of Belfast activities; it may take non-natives a while to tune into the accents and cadence patterns, but the performances – led by Robert Donovan as Kyle and Michael Liebmann as his hardline psycho lieutenant Freddie – ring true at almost every instant, whether suppressing emotions, ingulging them or (as is characteristic of my homeland's temperament) sublimating them in sardonic one-liners. It is likely that most spectators will home in on Kyle's personal labyrinth of convictions and obligations, but Mitchell's success is that he can show us at one the huge, ungainly knot of the general picture and allow us to follow a particular strand though all its snarls and jumbles.
Written for the Financial Times.
Copyright © Ian Shuttleworth; all rights reserved.
Return to index of reviews for the year 2001
Return to master reviews index
Return to main theatre page
Return to Shutters homepage