Erris

A mother on hunger strike and a daughter sent to enforce the law, but where is the emotional punch in Hannah Burke's two-hander?

Erris is a two-hander set in an anonymous room somewhere off the coast of Ireland. The setting is all interior: a table, two chairs and a pair of lived in, lace up lady's boots, the tongue of one boot hanging down dispiritedly. A woman walks on. She plays the Yeats poem put to song 'Down by the Salley Gardens' on the violin. Her feet are bare. The boots sit waiting.

A second woman strides on stage: black tie, black trousers, white shirt. She's younger but very much in charge of the situation. She's visibly angry, aggrieved at the other woman. She tosses a wrapped up sandwich bag onto the table. They sit facing each other across the table; the older woman is clearly a prisoner on hunger strike, a protestor, it transpires, against a pipe-laying ship named the Solitaire.

The younger woman is her interrogator. She's a member of the Irish police, the garda siochana. As they talk, their relationship becomes clearer but more complex. The prisoner is the ban garda's mother. The daughter wants her to eat 'brown bread, good ham with the fat... mustard'.

With Erris, playwright Hannah Burke has created a double tension: the global meets local, maternal meets the patriarchal. The protest against an oil company is made frighteningly intimate by the introduction of a young idealistic policewoman is sent to enforce law and order among the protestors. Are her commanding officers sitting on the other side of a two way mirror, watching the daughter try to break the mother?

At one point, the daughter shoves the mother's face into the ham sandwich. The gagging and retching after days of no food is nauseatingly convincing, the horror of being force fed powerful and the fact that it is her daughter doing it feels almost indecent.

So where are we? Erris premiered in Theatre503, Battersea, as part of GOLDENdelilah's perspectives on the 7 Deadly Sins' impact on family, state and work relationships. All the signs point to Erris being based on real life dramatic events.

An oil pipe-laying ship? Protestors? Irish coast? It all feels familiar to those aware of the Erris Community in Mayo and the controversy over Shell Oil's proposed Corrib gas project there, a natural gas pipeline that local residents argued was a risk to them.

There were the Rossport Five, five local landowners who refused to obey an injunction and allow Shell Oil onto their land and who were imprisoned for 94 days. Their release on the September 30 2005 met with marches, celebrations and welcome-home signs and bonfires.

It's a real life drama that still commands the headlines. Only a few days ago, on the January 27, 2011 the Irish Times reported that An Taisce, the Irish National Trust, said that the Shell approval of the final section of the Corrib gasline was 'legally flawed'. Add to this the dramatic political events unfolding in the Republic of Ireland, with the Taoiseach Brian Cowen's resignation, the dissolution of government and a pending general election on February 25. There are fears that the situation Erris could become a political football.

But by the end of the 20 minutes of this lunch time performance, I am left wondering what Burke was attempting to say that hadn't already been said in real life? Bronagh Lagan (mother) and Joyce Greenaway (daughter) put in strong performances but, overall, the writing doesn't reflect the raw emotion of a community in a David and Goliath situation.

However, there is one moment, towards the end, where I feel I glimpsed Burke's sense of injustice and where there is a bigger narrative to be mined. The mother is left on stage, the daughter has exited both in self-disgust at her force feeding of her mother and her inability to change her mother's thinking.

The mother sits on top of the table, almost broken but not quite, and reveals 'people think I'm mad because I don't work', and what could have been another eco warrior speech suddenly has a new authenticity when she cries out 'I'm a fucking teacher... a teacher'.

The woman/mother/protestor suddenly has a context; a respectable job, a pensionable job, up there certainly in rural Ireland with the priest and the doctor. So why is she on hunger strike? Why is she protesting? The next line packs the emotional punch I was waiting for: 'someone has to do it'. A cliched line, in some ways, but in light of the ordinariness of the real life protestors it suddenly has dramatic weight.