Helen Edmundson's The Clearing is at home in the Tricycle Theatre in several ways. This is a frequent London venue for shows toured by Shared Experience, the company for which Edmundson has written several stage adaptations of novels and which now revives her original 1993 piece. The play's historical subject matter, the Cromwell régime's enforced transplantation of perceived dissidents in 1650s Ireland to the wilds of Connaught or to indentured servitude in the West Indies, strikes a deep chord with the London-Irish component of the Kilburn venue's audience constituency. With its intentional pre-echoes of more recent conflicts and even more extreme examples of "ethnic cleansing", it also stands as a second cousin to the Tricycle's series of transcript-based humanitarian investigations such as Nuremberg and Srebrenica.
The story focuses on a mixed marriage between an English landowner, Robert Preston, and an Irish farmer's daughter, the former Madeleine O'Harte. As the Prestons' settler neighbours are sentenced to transplantation for having supported the royalists and Maddie's "sister" Killaine (who nurses a discreet crush on her) seized simply for being Irish in the wrong place, Madeleine's attempts to stand as a bridge between the communities founder and Robert's self-serving acquiescence becomes increasingly extreme. His defining moment is less like that of Proctor in The Crucible than Winston in Nineteen Eighty-Four, while Maddie's very uprightness effects a reconciliation both with her initially distrustful English neighbour Susaneh and with the militant Irish partisans, the Tories, who had disowned her for marrying-out.
Edmundson's script and Polly Teale's direction leave little room for Shared Experience's trademark marriage of text and physical character work; here, it's all in the words. Those words are sometimes overwritten (nowhere more so than in the opening scene, where a self-consciously mystical-poetical strain of Irishness is indulged to excess), but by and large the variety of linguistic lexicons and registers is well handled. Aislín McGuckin is all admirable Celtic fire as Madeleine, a firm viewpoint-figure for the audience while Joseph Millson's Robert mutates from well-meaning but misguided naïveté into a wild-eyed, unquestioning creature of the English régime. Richard Attlee is fearsomely poker-backed and astringent as the governor of County Kildare, the arbiter of official political morality. Edmundson manages successfully to have her cake and eat it, with a first act which maps out a complex range of allegiances, diplomacies and compromises, and a second which steadily but relentlessly piles all the cards up on one side of the table.
Written for the Financial Times.
Copyright © Ian Shuttleworth; all rights reserved.
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