In 1990, the then-Sinn Féin director of publicity Danny Morrison (who had memorably described the twin-track IRA strategy as "a ballot-box in one hand and an Armalite in the other") was imprisoned for kidnapping and conspiracy to murder, in what he maintains was a case of entrapment involving an IRA/police informer. The Wrong Man, adapted by Morrison from his own novel, opens with the kidnapping and murder of an alleged IRA/police informer.
In fact, Morrison quickly transcends cynical "write about what you know" responses. The terrified Tod is murdered at the end of the opening scene; we subsequently see in flashback the story of his involvement with the IRA cell led by his best friend Raymond, the men's strained relationships with their respective wives and entanglements with the law. It's a refreshing achievement to tell a tale like this without a hint of an ideological agenda. Certainly, the police officers are bastards, but there is no linkage of this with their status as agents of the British state; the IRA operatives are likewise portrayed as at best too immersed in their work, at worst just as manipulative and thuggish as the cops. The real conflict here is between Causes with a capital C and the simple human dimension.
Director Sarah Tipple uses a largely Northern Irish cast to excellent effect. These actors have an instinctive feel for the rhythms and registers of the region's speech which are (apart from the occasional too-formal turn of phrase touching on Big Issues) well captured in Morrison's script. Indeed, in one way this becomes a drawback: the modest amount of humour in the play is so well disguised in darkly sardonic remarks that it's easy to miss, especially for English ears.
There's some excellent writing here: the final police interrogation scene is at least as compelling as anything I have seen by fellow West Belfast playwright Martin Lynch. The performances match it, especially Chris Patrick-Simpson as the conflicted Tod and Tony Devlin doubling as one of his abductors and the "bad cop" half of the classic double act. But I'm not sure that the play thrives away from its native soil. This is a pity, as it carries none of the soapboxing that's all but mandatory for Northern Irish dramas... although, when one widow asks another if perhaps the women could persuade the IRA to apologise for the murder, one can't help thinking of recent events.
Written for the Financial Times.
Copyright © Ian Shuttleworth; all rights reserved.
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