Summertime

A victim of sexual abuse searches for answers in David Ireland's 'consistently watchable' new play

‘I hate everyone I see. I want to hurt people.’ For Isaac, the severely traumatised young man at the heart of David Ireland’s new play Summertime, the lines are less a threat than a prophecy. He is an accident waiting to happen.

Why? Largely, it seems, because of the shocking child abuse he suffered as a child. When his mother died, Isaac's father began interfering with him sexually. There are hints that he did the same thing to his daughter, with whom Isaac now lodges.

Ireland has, however, other ingredients to toss into the toxic mix that addles Isaac’s relations with everyday reality. The main one is religion. We first see him barrelling into a Church of Ireland vestry in east Belfast, yowelling desperately, bleeding and eventually passing out with a seizure.

He has been beaten up, apparently, though the reasons why are contested. The young minister of the parish, Jonathan, befriends him, and in a series of conversations Isaac peppers him with questions, revealing an obsessive fixation with theological issues. Does hell exist? Is his father there? Can Jonathan do exorcisms?

From Isaac’s conviction that he is possessed by the devil, Ireland subtly fashions a symbol of the extreme dysfunctionality that a combination of abuse and the blunt rigidities of fundamentalist religious dogma can foment in individuals too young or inexperienced to defend themselves against it.

These are issues of grim contemporary relevance in Northern Ireland, and it’s hugely refreshing to find a native playwright looking boldly beyond the normal catalogue of default topics – The Troubles, Titanic, Irish history and politics – frequently resorted to when ‘our wee place’ is the subject on stage.

And Summertime, which is running at The MAC until November 16, has yet more potentially explosive material to offer. Joe, an older member of Jonathan’s congregation, spouts what some would certainly view as vile, homophobic invective, when he learns that his young minister is sympathetic to what Joe calls ‘faggots’, ‘poofs’ and ‘poofters’.

Ireland is, however, careful not to demonise: Joe is otherwise presented as a fundamentally decent, personable individual, who misses his dead wife and plays cards with Jonathan out of loneliness. His step-son, it transpires, is homosexual, something Joe has spent years unsuccessfully trying to get to grips with.

The gradual revelation of his characters’ deepest fears, phobias and preoccupations is skilfully managed by Ireland in a script that rarely loses narrative momentum, regularly deliveings sharp, discomfiting insights into the Northern Irish mentality.

Summertime could seem forbiddingly issue-laden were it not for the excellent ensemble work of the four actors,from whom director Michael Duke elicits compellingly believable performances.

At the heart of this Tinderbox Theatre Company production is the Isaac of Newry-born actor Ryan McParland, who runs the full gamut from nervous taciturnity to crazed destructiveness in his depiction of a character already irredeemably damaged before the curtain rises, whose identity fractures before the very eyes of the audience.

It’s an intensely committed performance, by turns funny, gripping, vulnerable and affecting. If there’s an element of overkill, it’s in the difficult scenes where Ireland requires Isaac to wreck the vestry, before screaming at Jonathan to knife him. These scenes are arguably a touch protracted and over-heated, something that might possibly be addressed in future productions, or by discreet cutting.

There is also strong support from Richard Clements, the well-meaning, liberally-inclined pastor, whose laissez-faire theology implodes against the jagged edges of Isaac’s splintered personality.

Ivan Little judges to a tee the complicated mixture of unthinking homophobia and warm benevolence underlying the bluff, affable exterior of parishioner Joe, while Victoria Armstrong effectively suggests a threatening, sinister streak in Judith, Isaac’s superficially caring sister.

Director Michael Duke reads the pulse of Ireland’s dialogue astutely, allowing time for scenes to unravel in a naturally conversational fashion. McParland in particular is given plenty of elbow room to register the mercurial complexities of Isaac’s personality.

Alyson Cummins’s set, meanwhile, catches evocatively the faded functionality of the vestry room, where all the action of Summertime happens. Its studied drabness – the dreary velvet drapes, sunbleached cardboard folders, and scuffed-up russet carpeting – seems somehow to encapsulate the mindset of conservatism and introversion that Ireland clearly identifies in the play as a totally inadequate response to the problems of a modern society in the 21st century.

Summertime is not a perfect play, but it is consistently thought-provoking and watchable, not least because the tatty navel hairs of our collective history don’t really interest the man who wrote it.

Ireland’s subject is, unapologetically, the present – where we are now as a society, what issues we still have to sort out, and how we might start sorting them. We need more playwrights like him, and more plays like Summertime, to show us, tentatively at least, some of the possible ways forward.

Summertime runs in The MAC, Belfast until November 16.