Old Red Lion Theatre, London – 30 June 2018
The ambition behind Seamus Finnegan’s I Am Of Ireland is awesome in its scope, as it tackles the last century of modern Irish history in all its myriad complexities. And the intent that lies behind it is equally laudable, as Finnegan delves deep into the national psyche to analyse what deep-seated religious and political partisanship means for society in a contemporary Ireland.
With the Troubles under the microscope, Finnegan provides us with a dizzying kaleidoscope of stories – some inter-connected, some not, but all touching on the way some kind of conflict has impacted on life. Nationalism curdled into racism, faith challenged by abuse, the legacy of a life governed by terrorism moving forward into a future that seemingly only wants forgiveness.
It’s a lot to cover, especially in the intimate surroundings of the Old Red Lion and with such a broad canvas, it is then perhaps inevitable that the play can feel fragmented at times. Ken McClymont’s assured direction struggles to establish a sense of flow to the many short scenes and can’t quite cover the unforgiving awkwardness of the scene changes in Mike Leopold’s design.
But slight misgivings about the format aside, this is a knotty and thought-provoking look at the difficulties of reconciliation, the impossibilities of peace in a culture so suffused with an enduring depth of ill feeling. Euan Macnaughton brings nuance to his former IRA paramilitary, set adrift in a world that is moving faster than his ability to secure the moral absolution he craves.
There’s moving work from Saria Steel as Mary, whose decision to join a convent sits uneasily with her mother; Angus Castle-Doughty mines ferocious depths as his two angry young men; and Richard Fish and Sean Stewart pair up well as old schoolfriends riven apart by one’s decision to emigrate to England and also as two clergymen negotiating the tricky place of the Catholic Church amid scandal aplenty.
Most moving though is Jerome Mgonadi’s Caribbean priest who finds himself the target of racist violence. And most impressive is Shenagh Govan who flits effortlessly from distraught mother to hardboiled detective to forward-thinking housekeeper to a chillingly convincing priest who loves his fire and brimstone. It’s a challenging play to be sure, and one which rightfully provides no easy answers, but it is an intelligent and uncompromising interrogation of a nation’s past that English playwright would do well to emulate.