On my way to the Royal Court's Theatre Upstairs on Tuesday evening, I passed a vigil for lawyer Rosemary Nelson – "murdered", the placards said, "with RUC collusion". Such alleged connivance between the security forces in Northern Ireland and Loyalist paramilitaries is a world away from the situation depicted in Gary Mitchell's powerful, disturbing new play, which darkens from domestic comedy to a quite terrifying stand-off. The era of the action is not specified, but it could be any time from the early 1980s through to the Loyalist ceasefire of 1994.
Geordie is a UDA godfather on the Rathcoole estate in north Belfast. Unemployed himself, he receives supplicants for jobs – or rather, "jobs" – checking even old friends for sound wires, just in case. His diffident, fifteen-year-old son, stunted by living in Geordie's shadow, is being bullied at school; Geordie and his wife Margaret differ over the approach to take – he opts to ignore the problem, she prefers to arrange a punishment beating. Meanwhile, he is approached with a deal whereby a maverick British Army "special" (meaning SAS, one presumes), in order to get cash to disappear with his local girlfriend, offers a consignment of guns from his barracks. Both chains of events, unsurprisingly, go pear-shaped, with the trust of the title being betrayed left, right and centre.
Mick Gordon directs with an innate sensitivity to both the banalities and the complexities of Northern Irish life, from the big-picture internecine conflicts between Loyalists and the forces of the Crown to whom they are supposedly loyal to the minutiae such as a supporting character's habitual, casual use of the word "fuck" (as Michael Herr memorably described it) "like a comma". Rae Smith's design discreetly dresses the McKnights' living room just that little bit too nicely for a jobless couple. Some scenes are played on the auditorium steps and almost in the audience; Gordon succeeds in making this device bestow an unavoidable immediacy rather than just seeming gimmicky. But the heart of the production is a trio of magnificent central performances. Patrick O'Kane as Geordie both looks and sounds more than a little like the late LVF kingpin Billy Wright, his quiet command palpably masking a deep vein of savagery. Colum Convey as his lieutenant, Artty – almost the Joxer to Geordie's Captain – is by turns comical and repellent as a parasitical thug. Laine Megaw's Margaret is from the harder edges of the great Irish tradition of strong women, and simply by being frozen and mute for a minute or more after the climactic confrontation, delivers some of the most riveting acting I have seen this year.
But the most significant feature of the play, like the dog that does not bark in the night, is easy to miss. In this story of Loyalists, police and army, nowhere in the play – whether directly or even by the merest implication – is any mention made of sectarianism, Republicanism, the "enemy" or any such dimension. The mechanisms of funding, arming and local codes of respect have entirely obscured the supposed reason for the UDA's existence; they are here, we infer, because they are here. Mitchell, whose own family come from the Loyalist community in Rathcoole, is quietly but eloquently condemning a culture in which the "grand causes" which have riven his homeland and mine are no longer even paid lip service. The play's run ends the day after Good Friday; let us pray that by then, our politicians will have found the strength to consign such a culture irrevocably to history.
Written for the Financial Times.
Copyright © Ian Shuttleworth; all rights reserved.
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