A disturbing and subtle look into the relationship between abuser and the abused
What would you do if confronted with your sordid past, when faced with the naked shame of an act you thought long buried? It’s a common enough theme in modern drama. But in Prime Cut’s very welcome revival of David Harrower’s Blackbird, there is nothing so easy as a satisfying comeuppance.
Instead, Blackbird offers what feels uncomfortably like a truthful discourse on abuse and how ill-suited our careful moral conventions often are to processing such acts.
55-year-old Ray (Dan Gordon) is a reasonably successful middle-management type: affable, slightly bumbling, likeable even. A young woman named Una (Lisa Hogg) comes to see him in his workplace, and we join the pair making awkward salutations in a messy staff common room.
It becomes clear very quickly that an increasingly distressed Ray isn’t pleased to see Una. Furthermore, he’s scared. The rotten penny drops almost immediately that Ray and Una have in fact been lovers. The gut-punch here is that Ray and Una were together 15 years ago, when he was 40 and she was 12 years of age.
Ray has moved on since his ‘relationship’ with the child Una; prison, treatment and a new name have 'earned' him a normal life and even a wife. But the past has not been so easy for Una to forget.
Dan Gordon is extremely convincing as Ray, this rather boring, fearful man who has prepped and finessed his justifications for years, but doesn’t quite believe them himself. 'I was wearing tight shorts and I clearly didn’t get an erection' is one hugely horrific/hilarious reminiscence of a family barbecue he relays to convey the initial innocence of his affections for a pre-pubescent Una.
Throughout, Gordon perspires, fidgets and seems to physically diminish before our eyes, during one scene, as he sits silently broken, looking out to the audience as Una retraces the last sorry moments they had together before the real world – police, parents, the press – came crashing down around them.
Lisa Hogg positively shines as Una, a damaged child in a woman’s body, the very mirror of her 12 year old self. When she delivers lines like 'I wanted to put out your eyes, eyes that had looked at me', her pained delivery is such that you almost feel sorry for Ray.
Throughout, Hogg imbues Lisa with a tragically toxic combination of vulnerability and steely malevolence that convincingly essays how abuse doesn’t just go away once the perpetrator has been removed. When Una discovers that Ray's new name is the gentrified Peter Trevallion, for example, she remarks caustically on his attempts to reinvent: 'The rich have sex with underage girls too.'
Gradually, the story progresses from a tense confrontation to something altogether more terrifying and nerve snapping – as a sickening, but apparently real, affection and intimacy develops between the two. It’s testimony to director Emma Jordan and the actors involved that this is handled without fuss in as deft a sleight of hand as you’re likely to see on stage anywhere this year.
We’re annoyingly complex animals, us humans. We enforce parameters and codes to co-exist peaceably, harmoniously and without causing harm, yet contradict ourselves at every turn. Blackbird takes us to the grey areas we least like to go, but should probably visit more often. All the better to understand ourselves and our often capricious and subjective relationship with morality.
Blackbird is at the Lyric Theatre in Belfast until September 18, before touring other venues across Northern Ireland. Check out CultureNorthernIreland's What's On for more information on where to see the play.