Wednesday, 2 September 2015

Language of the Mute - New Theatre

An old teacher sits at his desk, apathetically grading copy books. A poster of Patrick Pearse, that side profile photo as Pearse was ashamed of his being cross-eyed, hangs on the wall behind him. The quiet, "daily-routine" atmosphere is smashed as two gunmen burst in the door, the teacher, confused, calls out a catchphrase of Pearse's: "Cad é seo? Cad é seo?" before being bound, gagged and a sack put over his head.  What seems like an undeserved act of cruelty is shown to be something quite different, as the gunmen's kangaroo court expose our innocent teacher as a violent monster.

Directed by Liam Halligan and written by debuting playwright Jack Harte, Language of the Mute is a brutal  look at the dangers of idolatry and unflinchingly approaches the subject of child abuse, a linguistic softening of the pain and suffering victims experience the lead gunman, Kathy (Aoife Moore) rejects. She instead uses brutal words to match the deed: Buggery. Rape. The play takes place in two time periods: the kangaroo court and years before, when these former students turned executioners were under the merciless thumb of their teacher called Donie. These flashback sequences are the strongest moments of the play, the amiable surface of Donie (played by Michael O' Sullivan) cloaks the menace we are made aware of through the court scenes. Whenever this menace appears, Donie is a terrifying, oppressive figure; one that is unfortunately too real. These moments are, unfortunately, propped up by much emotional exposition in the court scenes, as it is, for the most part, characters standing about detailing all the horrible things Donie has done. These scenes can feel further stilted by stiffness of dialogue: "This is a kangaroo court, duly and properly convened according to the principles that Donie holds most dear." This line may be serviceable in prose, (Jack Harte's more familiar form) but it's awkward and clunky in the verisimilitude of the play. There can also be moments that are awkward for any form, like the emotionally charged Alan (Matthew O'Brien) confronting a horrible event in his past gets caught up in an odd "diseased rock" metaphor.

Despite this, the play is thematically strong, displaying the power of language and authority, most daringly in its many attacks on Patrick Pearse. National heritage in Ireland can be difficult to criticise, especially when it comes to any figures associates with 1916 and the following Free State era (other than Éamon De Valera who is cast as something of a Judas) who are essentially worshiped. The play doesn't exactly damn Pearse, rather he's the focal point of what the play discusses: what is unsaid about our idols. Much like Pearse hiding his unpleasant eye in his photo, we ignore any idea of the dark side of our idols, choosing, rather, the simplified, beautified heroic vision and silencing criticism. Meanwhile: the victims speak the language of the mute.

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