Promoted as ‘a twisting and darkly comic thriller’, Under the Black Rock, at the Arcola Theatre, has each of those elements in different measures, but probably doesn’t achieve what the sum of the parts implies.
A stark portrayal of life in a society riddled with danger
It is certainly dark by way of both content and the staging by Director Ben Kavanagh, who ensures a stark portrayal of life in a society riddled with danger. Set in Northern Ireland at the height of the Troubles, the play covers familiar territory, but is more concerned with the tactics of fighting for the cause than the underlying politics. At the heart of it is the Ryan family, who become a microcosm of what the conflict involved for families across the province. Here one realises that just to write about it, the choice of words and terminology, can imply being on one side or the other; to live amongst it was a tightrope act. Head of the house is Cashal, whom John Nayagam instils with stern and brutal passion in all aspects of his life. His controlling behaviour sees his teenage son Alan (Jordan Walker) introduced to the IRA, long before he has the wisdom or courage to safely carry out tasks. His early death has a devastating impact on his sister Niamh. Evanna Lynch transforms her from a pleasant girl to an independent, rebellious woman consumed with anger towards her parents and passion for the cause into which she becomes fully immersed.
Flora Montgomery gives an anguished and embittered performance as Sandra Ryan, wife and mother, who suffers the brutality of her husband, the tragic loss of her son, and the prospect of her daughter going the same way. Despite all her begging and pleading to both her and her husband that she not become involved her efforts are fruitless. Rather confusingly, at times, she doubles up as Bridget, the hard-headed commander of the local IRA cell. She’s tough and engineers her way through an increasingly complex series of lies, deceits, cover-ups, double crossings and betrayals that run with considerable pace through Act II often adding to the other confusions. Another doubling sees Walker reappear as Fin, the bomb-maker who delivers some of the most chilling lines in the play in an amoral defence of a mistimed bombing made worse by his excessive loading of the bomb with nails and shrapnel, causing deaths and appalling injuries. The horrors of this are exceeded only a gruesome torture scene; definitely not for the faint-hearted.
As for the comedy, this is largely in the hands of Elizabeth Counsell who plays the local devout busybody, who is full lof amusing ripostes and one-liners that provide some relief but can also seem out of place in an otherwise agonising setting. Keeping more than an eye on what’s happening in his parish, Keith Dunphy plays the priest who is more deeply involved in politics than piety and treads a thin line of credibility.
Set and Costume Designer Ceci Calf has created a minimalist and versatile set of stark simplicity with just a table and some chairs that suits the tenor of the script. The great feature that dominates everything is the huge black rock that hangs over the action like the sword of Damocles, ensuring misfortune and imminent perils. Joseph Ed Thomas does a highly imaginative job in lighting the darkness with subtle moods and some spectacular moments of creative inspiration. His tangerine flood early on is stunning.
Under the Black Rock marks the writing debut for Tim Edge and draws on his years working and travelling around Ireland during the Troubles. He’s certainly not short of ideas and material, and while the work show considerable promise it remains interesting rather than gripping.