The Freedom of the City

Wed 14th – Sat 17th November 2012

reviews

Archie Cornish

at 15:34 on 15th Nov 2012

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This is a good production of a captivating play. Brian Friel’s work has national significance in Northern Ireland, where The Freedom is set, but its power is wide. The play concentrates on a single fictional event that takes place in Derry at the height of the Troubles. A civil rights march gets heated; the riot police intervene; the protesters run off through the gas. Three of them find themselves stumbling into the Guildhall, and the deserted Mayor’s Parlour. They drink British whisky, discuss the civil rights movement, and plot their exit.

The first achievement of this production is its setting. Alex Sayers’ and Lily Levinson’s decision to stage the play in the Oxford Union is a brilliant touch. Tentatively touching actual portraits of British political figures, and springing on the carpet ‘thick as a mattress,’ the three citizens, unemployed, poor, disenfranchised, are clearly at odds with the culture that rules them. The Morris Room makes that distance between the English establishment and the society it ruled wonderfully real.

Friel makes the brave decision to reveal from the off that his three marchers will die. The principal roles are supported by a host of other characters, mostly public functions – priests, soldiers, professors. Ellen Gould’s officious Judge begins proceedings by opening an inquiry into the deaths of the three citizens, killed by British troops as they left the Guildhall. This revelation makes the play more than a cat-and-mouse thriller, or an attempt at verbatim theatre – Friel could have chosen the real events of the Bloody Sunday massacre, but chose not to. This production feels more like a morality play, with three ordinary Irish characters its martyrs.

Despite the sense of being a fable, the production didn’t lurch into obvious didacticism. The three who end up in the Mayor’s Parlour were nicely rounded characters, whose relationships with each other changed during the few hours of their effective imprisonment. Andy Wynn Owen was Skinner, a nervously intelligent young waster, boozer and petty gambler. His opposite was Dom Ballard’s Michael, idealistic and politically engaged. Between them is Lily, played by Niamh Furey, a mother of eleven who very quickly starts telling the others about her children. There was a lovely sense of competition over Lily between the two young men: Andy gave Skinner a twitchy exhibitionism, pouring Lily drink after drink and dancing with her round the plush office. Dom’s performance was contrastingly understated, with hints of shyness and uncertainty. The decision to make Lily not just a tired housewife, but someone who retained a bit of verve, was a very good one, as it underlined the camaraderie created between the three trapped citizens by the mere fact of their being there together.

Action was cut up with more abstract set pieces from the rest of the cast. Occasionally a lighting change was a touch slow, but not slow enough to diminish the performances. Edith Johnson’s Dodds, a lecturer in sociology, was a lovely parody of the academic, wringing her hands and smiling inanely with every rhetorical question. Josh Entecott’s O’Kelly, a Southern Irish reporter, and Angus Aitken’s Brigadier, were on the first night the strongest vocal performances in the play, adding some punch. Perhaps most moving was Henry Hudson’s Priest, whose sermon to the audience mourned the death of the three murdered protesters with real feeling.

The depth of the cast reflects the wonderful complexity of the play. The Freedom of the City refuses to be drawn into the simplifications of propaganda: the abiding sense is not one of blame or accusation – it’s even left technically unclear as to how at fault the British troops were – but of the messiness of events like the one it stages. Ellen’s Judge sifts through swathes of evidence, like that presented by Rebecca Banatvala’s Doctor, which only seems to obscure matters. The few moments of simplicity in Friel’s script are staged with appropriate directness: for me, perhaps the most moving moments came as the three protagonists remembered, from beyond their graves, being killed. ‘I became very agitated,’ says Michael, in an extraordinary set piece of writing delivered beautifully.

There were some slips, in time and in space: sometimes cues were slightly patchy, and sometimes accents wavered, with the normally reliable Ulster voices suddenly migrating to Birmingham, the Bronx or Australia for a few seconds at a time. If you like characters to be always moving around the stage in a neat little dance, you might find the blocking sometimes a little listless. For me it captured the claustrophobia of the situation. To return to the Oxford Union (not something I ever thought I’d do), this was where the Morris Room came up trumps again – the sense of a little room being senselessly besieged was palpable. The Freedom of the City is a very good play that’s been well directed and performed. You should go and see it, especially if you’re a hack.

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