Brothers in Arms

Sam Millar's play explores the divide between 'pro- and anti-agreement republicanism'

Two brothers, irreconcilable differences, a family ripped asunder by the weight of divisive opprobrium. It’s a tale as careworn and familiar as they come, with everybody from Saint Paul to Jeffrey Archer cashing in on the fratricidal dollar in their time.

Add to that the recurring dramatic narrative of an Irish republican rift that turns former comrades into enemies, and you have Brothers in Arms, writer Sam Millar’s timely take on the current ideological faultline between supporters of Sinn Fein and the resurgent, angry and armed dissidents on the streets.

Director Martin Lynch intends Brothers in Arms to be the first of a trilogy of plays, 'an audit' of where Northern Ireland is after 18 years of ceasefires. Where better to begin than by running a tentative tongue over the rotten tooth of contemporary republican dissent?

It’s clearly a deeply personal issue for Millar, a former Blanketman. He is in favour, as he puts it, of 'giving peace a chance', but like a growing number of republicans is beginning to question exactly what of the post-conflict dividend has reached working-class nationalist communities.

Brothers in Arms poses the question that all republicans have considered: was the armed struggle, the violence and the sacrifice really all about making Martin McGuinness deputy first minister in a Northern Ireland Parliament?

It’s an impressive sleight of hand that mainstream republicanism has just about managed to carry off this sheer political volte-face. But the increasing profile of dissidents shows that their actions carry some weight.

The scene is thusly set: the Mullan boys attend their father's funeral. Sean was a leading Belfast republican, respected by all, and his two sons are divided by a common cause.

Older brother Frank is an embittered, valium-ravaged former prisoner who lost his freedom for the struggle and subsequently everything else on his release. Fifteen years younger, Michael is a clean cut, media-savvy Sinn Fein MLA who speaks out in favour of the Police Service of Northern Ireland, much to Frank’s disgust.

Michael has taken care of the funeral arrangements for the family. 'Gerry and Martin' are carrying the coffin and Christy Moore is to be played at the service, 'as befits a veteran republican'. It’s a far cry from the balaclavas and overhead gun shots that 'befitted' veteran republicans of old.

The tension between the two brothers is painfully palpable from the off. 'Did you hear a mouse squeak, or was it a rat?' snarls a perma-belligerent Frank. 'It’s people like me who put you where you are today.' Frank’s every utterance is richly basted in abject impotent aggression.

The relatively youthful Jim Doran somehow manages to look the 55 years old his character is meant to be, and brings a sense of barely controlled mania to the role. A man out of time, place and rope, his Frank is imbued with the pseudo-religious certainty that intense personal sacrifice can often effect.

As Michael says to his brother after another rant about betrayal: 'The hunger strike is the hunger strike Frank,' before accusing him of wanting to return to the 1970s rather than 'getting off his arse' to help effect change. It’s the clear delineation between pro- and anti-agreement republicanism, between the pragmatic and the principled.

All the while Sean's coffin remains centre stage, the fulcrum about which the two brothers duck and sway. Each one tries to claim their dad’s uncertain legacy as personal and political vindication. Each refers to the corpse and speaks about the past.

Which brings us to the 'light relief'. Uncle Peter is played with clownish charm by BJ Hogg. He is an amoral, avuncular idiotic wolverine of a man who puckishly assures each brother of their late father’s much coveted approval. 'They’ve had more splits than Elizabeth Taylor,' says secret SDLP supporter Peter of the republican movement. It’s a joke not lost on the (I’m guessing) mainly republican audience in the Waterfront Hall tonight.

That joke is materially evidenced on stage by the graffiti wall featuring the yellowing article of the 1916 Declaration of Independence. It looms ironically over proceedings and becomes both figurative witness and actual coat-hanger during the course of the play.

Of course, the issue here is as much generational as ideological. In the representation of an ‘old guard’ – implacable, aggrieved and dogmatic – Frank leads one to the uncomfortable conclusion that if we wait long enough, these faults tend to repair themselves through the gradual extinction of the inconvenient obstructionists.

Unfortunately, the drama of the play often buckles under the weight of the discourse it is attempting to negotiate, and frequently ends up falling in the crack between narrative and polemic. Brothers in Arms is both overly didactic and under-nuanced. Does the audience really need every conflicting point of view, every stripe of republican tenet spelled out in blinking neon capital letters?

It’s also difficult, in the final analysis, to single out where one's sympathies should lie, in that both protagonists aren’t massively likeable. Tony Devlin essays a very convincing young careerist MLA who still cleverly manages to harness the traction of tradition, but is given lines that often lack heart.

Frank’s personality, meanwhile, is driven exclusively by anger, and while Doran makes a great energetic fist of it, in the end Frank really has nowhere to go. He’s been 'set to 11' from the start. Perhaps the emotional distancing between characters and audience is the intention here – to show there are no moral certainties in the murky world of shifting republican ideals.

Some of the dialogue also errs on the side of clunky. Crime author Millar is clearly a better spinner of yarns than mouthpiece of men. Lines such as 'I loved that cross every bit as much as you did' serve neither script, character nor audience. Most disappointing of all is the abrupt, puzzling ending. Any dramatic tension that has been ratcheted is immediately and brutally spent in one hurried 'huh?' moment.

Lynch’s second directorial gig serves to remind us that his craft with the pen is the one to admire. Also, it doesn’t pay to think too closely about all of the head-melting, age-related anomalies that keep cropping up. But in spite of its many flaws, Brothers in Arms is a serious, even noble attempt to tilt the axis of our reality away from post-conflict Tourist Board triteness into realms just as garish, but much less palatable.

Lynch has described Brothers in Arms and the two further volumes of this NI trilogy as 'theatre that speaks to the community, and allows the community to speak back'. It would be very interesting to hear what communities both within and without the broad nationalist label have to say in response.

Brothers in Arms runs at the Waterfront Hall until February 18.