Freedom of the City

Brian Friel’s play enjoys a welcome resuscitation as a rehearsed reading

Directed by Adrian Dunbar with a clear empathy for the text, this rehearsed reading in the Elmwood Hall reminds us that not only is Freedom of the City one of Brian Friel’s most politically pertinent plays, it's also one of his angriest. 

Set after a fictional civil rights march in Derry in January 1972, three ordinary protestors, after fleeing from police truncheons and tear gas, hide out unwittingly in the Guild Hall, the civic seat of establishment (i.e. unionist) power in the city. That fact that Friel makes clear their chilling fates from the off makes the play all the more sickeningly poignant.

The characters are Michael the earnest, educated marcher who doesn’t want any trouble and naively believes that those in power will eventually demur to reasonable demand; Lily the beleaguered but buoyant mother of 11 kids, who’s marching because there’s nothing else to be done; and the ‘hooligan’ element represented by Skinner, the kind who Michael thinks is ruining it for everyone.

'How will they ever trust us?' he laments as Skinner helps himself to the contents of the lord mayor’s drinks cabinet, 'when we behave how they expect us to?!'

Though all three characters are too rounded, too believable to be mere archetypes, they do represent the didactic discourse at the heart of the play. That discourse isn’t on the wrongs of sectarianism, or even necessarily the virtue of civil rights. Very cleverly, Friel manipulates an all-too resonant scenario (the aftermath of Bloody Sunday) and enlarges the viewfinder to show this siege of three innocent Catholics as an assault by the powerful on the poor.

The convictions of Michael – who cites Ghandi, calls for 'a fair crack of the whip' and has misty-eyed reflections of dentists, lawyers and teachers marching together with ‘ordinary people’ – are inferred to be a strain of naivety that serve the system much more insidiously than any Saracen.

The matter-of-fact reflections that each character dwells on at the point of their demise are chilling in their quiet resignation. The smallness and sadness of their final thoughts really kicks you in the gut. Meanwhile, the chirruping of priests, brigadiers and high court judges represent the walls that these three tragic characters find themselves imprisoned within.

The whole format of the reading, from Dunbar’s own detached rendition of stage directions to the various interruptions of the back-line chorus, draws out the polemical essence of Freedom of the City. Dunbar’s dry description of, for example, how the corpses are arranged adds a new layer of alienation and discomfit to proceedings.

And from without the 'cage' there’s the voice of the American observer: removed from the conflict, removed from the arena of performance, making glib academic observations from a pulpit as to the nature of being poor. This clinical distancing from the events and imparting of sociological snippets serves in true epic-theatre style to draws us gradually, with each burst of patronising ‘-ology’ speak, further into the belly of the beast.

It’s no surprise that Freedom of the City was sharpened to a point by the real-life events that took place in Derry in January 1972 – the spectre of that massacre hangs everywhere. Freedom of the City isn’t just timely. In the wake of belated justice of a kind for the families of the 13 innocents gunned down 38 years ago, it’s also timeless. One can only hope this is a trial run for a full revival at the new Lyric of this bleak, beautiful and fiercely righteous play.