Magpie

In a cell strewn with straw, Michael Murphy sits on a basic mattress, chalks up the days of imprisonment on the wall; looks in his notebook and scribbles in it with his pencil. It’s a bleak and intense opening on a scene which only holds two more items: a chamber pot and a tiny metal food container. It is 1923 and we are in Ireland: a country divided by civil war. The soundscape including dripping water and subtle lighting colour changes hold the mood of each moment throughout. His decent into nightmares bathed in red are guttural and shocking. He talks to the persistent Magpie, outside his cell window, at times tormented and at times soothed by the presence of the bird who is the omen of “one for sorrow”. He names the bird Jamie for reasons that become clear later in a poignant and heart-breaking moment.

An intensely powerful piece told in a visceral, gritty and authentic way

This is a very personal story, a crucible of humanness in the midst of a divided country showing the cost of divisiveness and war. It’s also the story of how men, especially brothers, communicate with each other – or don’t, and what in this case happens as a result. Michael is so entrenched in his anger and pain that he only know to hit out at those around him, especially his brother Patrick who is the guard in the jail, and at the Priest who comes to see him. These verbal and sometimes physical barbs result in totally realistic brother punches and fights.

This is an extraordinary and excellent piece of theatre, in every respect. The story unfolds with the two brothers on opposite sides of the civil war: the youngest and the eldest in a huge family which only has the two of them and their Ma left in it. They have always been on opposing sides: Michael having signed up at 16 to fight for King and Country in the First World War, and called traitor by Patrick. “we pick sides” he says, while Michael points out that everyone is “sticking so hard to their truth”. Carrying the trauma of war on his return and being called traitor by his community, Michael changed sides. His anger was used against him, to manipulate him, to give him two unspeakable orders. Yet halfway through these he reaches his capacity: “all these orders – I couldn’t follow another one”.

The two brothers are incredible: Andrew Cusack, who also writes and produces, plays the angry, sarcastic and deeply pained Michael, while Johnjoe Irwin plays the stoic, barely holding it together Patrick. Despite their antagonism, the care and despair between them is palpable. Ronan Colfer, who also directs, plays Father Kelly, in a charged scene where he offers Michael time for confession and prayer yet ends up sharing his own feelings as the man behind the robes: “as a man I don’t feel much of anything anymore, how could I”. Michael asks him if he understands death, with the most beautiful line: “do you know what it’s like to be letters on a stone melted by the rain”.

This is an intensely powerful piece told in a visceral, gritty and authentic way, with a story born from Andrew’s own family and real knowledge of these things happening. It’s challenging and uncomfortable at times yet essential viewing. This is a journey of raw emotion and power, and the final understandings and empathy in the last ten minutes elevate a breathtakingly exceptional production to a must see. A stunning production, which is quite simply flawless.

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Reviews by Susanne Crosby

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The Blurb

Ireland, 1923. Civil war has split country, friend and family. The story of “Magpie” follows two brothers, Michael and Patrick Murphy, within the confines of Kilmainham Gaol. One an IRA gunman fresh from the trenches of WWI, the other a Freestate prison guard. Both haunted by the past. “Magpie” probes the complexity of loyalty between family and national allegiance, ideology, and experience. It resonates powerfully in today’s volatile times of war and conflict; enduring themes, as relevant today as they were a century ago.

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