Category: Archive

Theater Review: Friel’s vivid Bloody Sunday tableau

February 16, 2011

By Staff Reporter

By Joseph Hurley

THE FREEDOM OF THE CITY, by Brian Friel. Directed by Conall Morrison. Featuring Gerard Crossan, Sorcha Cusack, Michael Colgan and Bosco Hogan., The Abbey Theatre. At the John Jay College Theater. Recently completed run.

The lamentable event that came to be known as "Bloody Sunday" took place on Jan. 30, 1972, but Brian Friel’s "The Freedom of the City," although undeniably based on that infamous Derry City day, is specifically set by the playwright in 1970, perhaps because Friel wanted to distance his fictitious account from dead actuality.

The bleeding heart of "The Freedom of the City" concerns the lives and deaths of three fairly ordinary Derry citizens who, in the confusion of a protest march turned deadly, have stumbled into an unfamiliar refuge that turns out to be the city’s Guildhall. There they are, for all intents and purposes, incarcerated amid the musty trappings of civil government, while the world outside rages into madness and anarchy on clouds of tear gas.

Friel’s intention, clearly, was not to write a form of stage documentary, but that’s pretty much the way the play was received on the occasion of its New York premiere on Feb. 17, 1974. After four previews and nine regular performances, the play closed, having met a fate almost identical to that accorded the playwright’s "Wonderful Tennessee" a few seasons ago.

Despite the repair work done in the nearly seamless new production, directed by the celebrated young director Conall Morrison, and an almost uniformly excellent 18-actor cast, the play’s tendency to gravitate toward editorializing, and even lecturing, is still evident.

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An American sociologist, well-played by Bosco Hogan, appears and reappears with damaging frequency to tell the audience about "the culture of poverty," which was, in fact, the title of a then-trendy volume by the social scientist on whom Friel reportedly based his "Dr. Dodds," namely the late Oscar Lewis.

The three strangers who huddle together amid the pomp of petty officialdom are Lily Doherty, a workaday wife and mother of 11 children, Michael Hegarty, a jobless, well-intentioned youth, and Skinner, a youthful outlaw and non-conformist with an active sense of casual rebelliousness.

In Morrison’s transforming production, the captive trio is richly rendered by Sorcha Cusack, Gerard Crossan, and the galvanic Michael Colgan, this last-named not to be confused with the artistic director of the Gate Theatre Dublin.

Lily’s participation in the civil rights marches and demonstrations of the 1970s is not a response to any philosophical or intellectual position, merely an instinctive response to a situation something in her perceives as wrong.

Once inside the Guildhall, with the modest, rule-following Hegarty and the manic Skinner, nothing if not a loose cannon roaring through his limited world, Lily appraises her new surroundings through her working-class lens. When Skinner finds the lord mayor’s ceremonial robes, she immediately decides the red velvet would be ideally suited for covering a couch in the jammed rooms she shares with her brood and her eternally out-of-work husband.

She’d replace the Guildhall’s stained glass windows with something you could actually see through, and paint the woodwork with a color that would be easy to wipe down, perhaps pink. A flight of ceramic ducks, she feels, would add a lovely finishing touch to lighten the dreariness of the somber room in which she finds herself.

The growing affection the audience feels for Friel’s characters isn’t compromised in the least by the fact that we’ve seen them lying dead on the Derry pavement in the play’s opening scenes.

The playwright’s cynicism spares nobody, from the priest administering last rites in the street to a pompous forensics man providing expert testimony before the official inquiry, an investigation that absolved the British paratroopers who fired on the demonstrators on Bloody Sunday, killing 13 of them.

Director Morrison’s staging, ably aided by Francis O’Connor’s set design, Ben Ormerod’s lighting and Dave Nolan’s subtle sound plot, is extraordinarily successful at roping together the extremely diverse elements that make up "The Freedom of the City," which might be said to resemble a film script vastly more than it does any sort of text intended to be performed on the stage.

One enormous plus in the present production, brought to John Jay College Theater as Dublin’s Abbey Theatre’s contribution to the three-play tribute to Brian Friel, which is the centerpiece of Lincoln Centers’ Festival 99, is the great emotive effectiveness of the slides that are projected at various points during the course of "The Freedom of the City."

Morrison’s production, the first major revival of Friel’s ambitious slightly awkward play has received since its debut more than a quarter of a century ago, ranges and roars throughout the farthest reaches of the spacious John Jay College Theater, with "reporters" and "police" and others popping up in the aisles, in the balcony, and virtually everywhere they might conceivably be stationed.

The company’s 18 actors, some of them doubling and tripling as needed, negotiate their way over and around designer O’Connor’s two-tiered setting, while sirens wail and lights sweep from wall to wall of the broad auditorium.

Inside the spectacle always, however, is the shifting byplay involving those three insignificant individuals acting out a kind of ironic comedy, as they sample the lord mayor’s liquor and try on his ceremonial robes, behavior only heightened in its impact because we know the trio will eventually walk out of the Guildhall, their hands raised above their heads, and be shot to death by English soldiers.

Friel’s earnest, albeit flawed, play resonates in the light of events that have taken place since Bloody Sunday rocked Northern Ireland and alerted a large part of the world to the horrors being perpetrated in Derry, Belfast and elsewhere, particularly now that the slow march toward a lasting peace in Ireland seems slowed yet again.

What you’re likely to take away with you from "The Freedom of the City, along with a sense of loss brought on by the whole mournful situation, is the memory of Lily Doherty, a 43-year-old housewife and part-time cleaning lady, living in a shabby two-room flat, without the benefit of running water, with 11 children who arrived, she says, with the regularity of "a pattern of wallpaper."

One aspect of "The Freedom of the City" plays like an homage on Brian Friel’s part to what is probably Sean O’Casey’s greatest play, "Juno and the Paycock." Lily refers to her idle husband as "the Chairman," while Juno Boyle’s husband is known as "Captain" Boyle, in honor of a sea career he never really had.

Lily Doherty is a woman Juno Boyle would have recognized as a kindred spirit, and Friel may well have had his awareness of O’Casey’s heroine hovering somewhere overhead as he created his stalwart Derry Lily, struggling to make a life of sorts under circumstances a lesser woman would find hopeless.

The fact that Sorcha Cusack plays Lily without ever once signaling the audience for a display of sympathy is one of the very great strengths of Conall Morrison’s richly rewarding reworking of Brian Friel’s "The Freedom of the City."

Friel may have set up a straw man here and there, but Lily and her companions aren’t among them. They may be fictions, but they seem as real and as immediate as the men and women who actually fell in the troubled streets of Derry.

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