A Particle of Dread

Field Day add Sam Shepard's Oedipus story to its impressive canon

As a society, Northern Ireland is currently preoccupied with issues relating to the past. While politicians, political commentators and journalists pick over, examine, analyse and speculate on our imperfect, uneasy peace process, theatre continues to play its part, too.

Just as new ideas for the future are being sought now, so it was in the dark days of the early 1980s, when playwright Brian Friel and actor Stephen Rea founded Field Day, a company in search of new voices, new approaches, new audiences. It was based not, as might have been expected, in Belfast but in Derry~Londonderry, a city struggling with a divided community and a divided identity, where terrible acts of violence were being perpetrated on a regular basis.

Field Day established itself as a beacon of light, attracting a chorus of distinguished and courageous writers – among them Seamus Heaney, Terry Eagleton, Thomas Kilroy, Tom Paulin, Stewart Parker and, of course Friel himself – all blessed with vision and literary brilliance, all unafraid to speak out in different ways.

While, for a number of years, the performing arm of the company has been what Heaney once described as 'slumbrous', its literary activity has continued apace, publishing Irish Studies books of the highest academic and print standards. And, in honour of Derry~Londonderry's year as UK City of Culture, the latest Field Day Review was produced as a special issue, dedicated to the city and its surrounding area.

But one of the big stories of City of Culture has been the re-emergence of the much loved theatre company, which reopened its account in December 2012 with two plays by budding young Irish writers. Now, as the year winds to a close, Field Day has, typically, kept its powder dry, saving the best until last.

On a night when the city is illuminated by the Lumiere Derry festival of light, the great and the good travel from far and wide to the Playhouse for the premiere of a new play by one of the big beasts of contemporary theatre and cinema. Rea has been quoted as saying that, in his view, the three most influential voices in 20th century English language theatre are Samuel Beckett, Harold Pinter and the American writer/director/actor Sam Shepard, his friend of some 40 years.

In contrast to the high-pitched meetings and greetings taking place at the cobbled entrance to the venue, Shepard's low-key, inconspicuous figure walks quietly up Artillery Street, seeking no attention, no publicity, simply preparing for his immensely powerful play do the talking for him.

There are few finer cultural examples of the way in which the past impacts on the present and the future than in the classic Greek tragedies, which concentrate on great universal themes: fate, destiny, truth, familial relationships, the conflict between the individual and the state. Written almost 2,500 years ago, their influence remains profound and far-reaching.

Shepard has long felt a deep connection to the plays of Sophocles, specifically the Theban trilogy, which chronicles the story of Oedipus, the young man doomed to murder his father and marry his mother. Shepard has taken the first and, arguably, most famous of them, Oedipus Rex (Oedipus the King) as the inspiration for this intense thriller, a terrifying whodunnit, which speaks eloquently of the dubious morals and mythology of our own time.

In his writing for stage and screen, this quintessentially American writer consistently recognises that in order for there to be tragedy, there must be comedy; he is equally adept at dishing up dark humour and heart-stopping fear.

In his intriguingly titled play – whose significance is described in sickening detail at the play's turning point – menace is a constantly lurking presence, whether we are in ancient or modern times. Throughout it all can be heard Shepard's cool, sometimes world-weary voice, sounding straight from the wide open spaces of the American West.

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After years of working together, director Nancy Meckler displays an instinctive understanding of Shepard's intense narrative, which here follows no conventional structure or form. One by one, little nuggets of story drop into our consciousness like a complicated jigsaw puzzle that has no picture to follow.

In no particular order, but with unflagging momentum, the syncopated action navigates two parallel story lines: the ancient Oedipus myth and the murder of a Las Vegas casino owner, at the side of a dusty desert highway. The pace of storytelling is relentless, moving back and forward in time and merging characters and themes with a dazzling sure touch.

The physical setting is uncompromising too, translated by set designer Frank Conway and lighting designer John Comiskey into a stark, white tiled, blood-soaked interrogation room, where human skins and body parts are hung upon a line as testimony of lives lost in chilling circumstances. As Ry Cooder to Shepard's iconic film Paris Texas, composer Neil Martin contributes a spare, reverberating soundtrack, played live on cello from a gloomy raised corner of the set.

Into this torture chamber limps Rea's bloodied, dungaree-clad figure, squinting through thick goggles as he mops up the dripping evidence of the latest horrors to have occurred here. He is no stranger to this place. But who is he? Is he child or man? Is he of today or yesterday? Is he a king or a commoner? Is he an individual possessed or the sanest person alive? Is he blind or far-seeing?

The answer to all these questions is yes, and no. We learn that his disability was caused in infancy, when his father bound his feet, pierced his ankles and hung him from a tree to die – all to prevent the fulfilling of a prophecy.

Frank Laverty's sleek godfather Larry saunters on stage, dangerously at home in these gruesome surroundings. Adjusting the collar and cuffs of his sharp suit, he shares intimate details of his and his wife's desperate attempts to have a child with the first of Lloyd Hutchinson's wonderfully articulate Chorus figures. Here again, the duality of character hits home – one minute he is Laius, King of Thebes, the next a cold, calculating mobster.

Brid Brennan brings calm control and passion to three contrasting roles, morphing effortlessly from gangster's moll in a gilded cage to dignified queen to long-suffering spouse of Otto, a wheelchair-bound pensioner played by Rea with a curmudgeonly comic touch. Otto has read about the murder in his paper and persuades his wife that it is their business to find out who was killed and by whom.

He enjoys a sparky, deftly played relationship with his daughter Annalee (Judith Roddy) – Antigone in her former life – traumatised after a difficult birth and a nightmarish marriage to a thug who raped their babysitter to death. The significance of the two women becomes apparent as the truths slowly emerge, through a series of fractured, apparently random snapshots.

When the end comes, it arrives swift, shocking and daringly realised. It is left to Hutchinson's blind prophet Tiresias to complete the tale. As for Otto and Annalee, they begin to work their trance-like way through the annihilation they have witnessed, as though propelled forward by the final line of Beckett's novel The Unnamable: 'I can't go on. I'll go on.' After years of silence, Field Day can add this dense, resonant, Chinese puzzle of a play to the very finest in its impressive canon of work.

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