Old problems, fresh perspective.
The Peacock Theatre, 2.10.15 – 31.10.15
When interrogating a subject where dramatic potential has seemingly been wrung out, fresh approaches and ideas become essential rather than desirable. Northern Ireland, at least in our imaginations, is a land where peace remains a process, and the progress from open hatred between communities to happy co-existence is glacial. This slow-moving, semi-dysfunctional polity is not particularly promising ground for playwrights.
Stacey Gregg has mined drama, however, from the very stop-start nature of progress in Northern Ireland, its impact on the people living their today, and how they play their part in lingering dysfunction simply by trying to make their way. Most of the action centres around the building of a ‘peace wall’, the concrete monstrosities that increasingly dominate Northern Ireland’s working-class residential neighbourhoods. It’s decent work for a building crew living from job to job, whatever they (or their partners) think of it.
The crew and their families are reasonably well-drawn archetypes. We have a youngish family – Ruby, played by Kerri Quinn, is keen on sending her and Alan’s (Andy Kelleher) son Darren (Charlie Farrell) to a local integrated school, and hardly enthusiastic about the wall – even if it puts food on the table. Corey (Rhys Dunlop), Mo (Conor McNeill) and Stuarty (Vincent Higgins) are recognisable faces of alpha male, put-upon beta male and a grizzled man with a bit more history and bitterness than his peers. We even have a caricature of the seemingly confident but genuinely conflicted local councillor, played by Louise Matthews.
Three wild cards, however, make things rather more interesting. The wall is itself personified by Cara Robinson, who gains increased confidence and near-omnipresence in the mens’ lives as the project nears completion. Meanwhile, the entry of Yuri (Piotr Baumann) – an inately-likeable Eastern European addition to the crew – and his daughter Agnieszka (Sophie Harkness) into the mix proves a catalyst for a recognisable-but-affecting drama of romance, violence, and a deception that breeds tragedy. our penultimate image of the wall literally swallowing one shortened life whole is as straightforward an allegory as one can possibly draw but no less affecting for that. We see the human cost of lingering dysfunction in Northern Ireland, before Shibboleth ends with an entirely optimistic vision of progress toward joy, however slow.
This play will not appeal to everyone. Interludes of quasi-musical dialogue, self-referencing fourth-wall-breaking moments and some full musical numbers left my companion cold. I loved these dashes of creativity – and not just because they introduced Edwin Collins’ 1995 hit, ‘A Girl Like You’, to the Peacock audience. Shibboleth probably won’t appeal to an audience expecting in-depth character exploration – it introduces characters with plenty of potential, but simple doesn’t have time in its 90 minutes to explore them in depth. However as an allegorical take on where Northern Ireland is today, and where it may be tomorrow, this is a unique and creative production.