This Piece of Earth

Brendan Deeds digests Ransom's provocative portrayal of a starving Ireland

This Piece of Earth finds husband and wife, John and Maeve, played by Lalor Roddy and Pauline Goldsmith, struggling to survive in Ballycastle during the dark days of the Irish Famine.

From the outset we are in a cold, desolate arena. Diego Pitarch’s set is a masterstroke. A circle of cold earth rimmed by stones suggests a land barren and lifeless.

A mound of rocks looks ominously like a makeshift grave, whilst a canvas shows a burnt rust sky of storm clouds. Landscapes such as this haunted the vistas of Beckett’s darkest dreams.

Roddy’s performance is heartrending. John knows if his pregnant wife is to have any chance of survival, she will need his help. Her body, crippled with exhaustion and blind with hunger, has only his strength to keep her going.

His eyes filled with tears, John rails at fate as he stares into the middle distance, seeing crows gather to pick at the dead and the dying. Incidentally, this spot is exactly where the Old Museum Arts Centre had placed all the critics.

John needs Maeve’s emotional strength to keep him going, and Goldsmith captures the steely dignity of a woman who knows that men are weak and lost without a woman’s love, and that physical strength is nothing compared to the power and mystery of the human heart.

It is fitting that this is the story which Ransom Productions have chosen, as the company is a family affair.

Their new play sees Director Rachel O’ Riordan working with partner Richard Dormer’s script, along with poetry from her father Robert Welch.

It seems appropriate that a family helped create This Piece of Earth, since the play focuses its attention on a husband and wife rather than trying to show the horror which tore through an entire country.

Dormer’s script shows how the famine was a trial for both body and soul. Where both John and Maeve fight with their insecurities, they find solace in their enduring capacity for love.

The Priest, appearing at the play’s close, has no such strength.

'I am sick of death,' he wails, before ranting that the famine is England’s fault, and prophesying that there will be no peace for an Ireland whose people have become exiles.

His soul has been tested but he has lost himself to hate and despair. Attempting to rally his resolve, he quotes the Bible as he protests, ‘Death, where is thy victory? Grave, where is thy sting?,’ but his words are hollow.

The Priest's stature in society has brought him food but his spirit is empty, ravaged from within. Dormer’s role as the Priest is a scene-stealing performance.

For all its craft, This Piece of Earth has much to admire but less to enjoy. It is unremittingly grim and mirthless. It begins with a couple, half-dead on the earth and things get darker from there. However, it remains a powerful, poetic, and thought-provoking play.

Even within the darkness there is a scattershot of moments where John and Maeve share hope and happiness. And there is love, above all there is love. Long after the play has passed the feeling that endures is that if love can survive within a savaged soul then there will always be beauty and light in the world.