Remnants of Fear
Brendan Deeds takes in Gary Mitchell's controversial play
Gary Mitchell is arguably one of the most important, gifted and controversial playwrights in modern Irish theatre. He is the authentic voice of working class loyalism. His previous critically acclaimed plays As The Beast Sleeps (1998) and Force of Change (1999) have shown audiences the harsh reality of post-ceasefire life in his community.
He has explored how the UDA dominate and intimidate the very people they claim to defend and has sharply satirised the bloody feuds and power struggles of the gangs who care more about money and power than patriotism.
Last year they met Mitchell’s words with violence.
One night, Mitchell's car was petrol-bombed and his home vandalised. He was told that he and all the Mitchells who lived in his neighbourhood had four hours to leave or be killed. He now lives in a secret location. Remnants of Fear is his first play since that night.
It is to Mitchell’s credit that in writing a play exploring the forces behind these events he has not made himself the hero of the piece. Instead he imagines the dark elements that make an innocent youth become a mobster’s lackey.
Tony, played by Sam Murdock, is a gormless teenager with little education and no job prospects. He is faced with the choice of trying to scrape an existence by his own meagre means or join a paramilitary organisation who promise wealth and power . . . at a cost.
Charlie, Tony's father, left the UDA in 1990 but Tony’s uncle Geordie is a rich and feared member of its ranks. It is Geordie who draws the youth towards violence. This dark initiation is encouraged by Maud, the boy’s granny, who enjoys the prestige and money that come from having family high up in the UDA.
We see Tony begin his slide towards paramilitarism when his uncle Geordie first comes to visit. This is a powerful and slick scene. Geordie knows the boy has heard rumours of his notorious activities. He teases him with promises of juicy details and forbidden knowledge which Tony’s father has tried to hide from the boy. Kieran Lagan pulses with alpha male arrogance in his portrayal of Geordie.
There is an element of seduction about this unnerving scene. He is grooming Tony for his purposes. Coaxing and coercing the teen with praise, promises and thinly-veiled intimidation, Geordie soon wins the boy over.
Lagan is good at conveying menace but his performance lacks a certain nuance, his Geordie akin to 'Red Hand Luke' of Give My Head Peace. He forgets that Geordie should charm as well as cajole, be both beguiling and bullish. Fortunately the scene is powerful enough to survive unscathed and when Tony agrees, moist-eyed, to join his uncle’s ‘team’, we are hit by the impact of having seen someone sell a part of his soul.
One of the issues Mitchell explores in Force of Change and Loyal Women (1999) is how women in working class communities are victims of a dominating male ethos. Similar themes are revisited in Remnants when Tony talks to Maud with something bordering on derision. She is expected to serve the men around her. However, just like the female police officers in Force of Change, she ultimately uses the system to get what she needs.
Maud is played by Eileen Pollock, known for her role as 'Lilo Lil' in the BBC sitcom Bread. She overacted so much on Thursday’s performance that when she howled as Maud’s sons argued, the man in the seat next to me asked his wife if he should call a doctor. At the performance she also had trouble with her lines in every scene. However, Lalor Roddy as Charlie was superb, and remains an under-used talent.
Mitchell’s best plays are well plotted with complex, interweaving narratives. There is no such flair in Remnants of Fear, which has been oversimplified to the point of being drudgingly linear. It is only in the play’s last ten minutes that some interesting back-story appears.
Remnants of Fear is not Mitchell’s best work but it is uncompromising. Charlie's words could not be more frank,
‘The only thing the protestant people have to fear is the UDA.’