Fine Millennium Forum production of Frank McGuinness's enduring classic

A few times in my life, someone has been telling me a terrible story from their past, and, clichéd though it might sound, I have literally felt their pain. A child abused, a parent lost, a family suicide, the pain exposed in the telling has been a tangible presence in the room, something that can be touched. It catches in the throat. It seeps into the skin. It makes you want to offer comfort, yet also to run away.

Carthaginians is primarily a play about pain, about making the audience feel. All of the characters, as they wait in Creggan graveyard for the dead to rise, retch up their agonies, one by one, the painful truth eventually spewing out.

Frank McGuinness’s work, written in the 1980s, has endured because of its original and discursive mix of classicism, passion play, surreal snatches of song and poetry, and historical narrative. Characters manage to be both symbolic yet rooted in reality, and offer thought-provoking dichotomies. Tout or truth-teller, madman or visionary, recovering addict or dissembling junkie? Reach your conclusions with care.

Overseeing proceedings is the fabulous creation of Dido, Queen of Carthage (aka Derry), gay jester, opportunist and agent provocateur, the countercultural foil to the misery and suffering. It is Dido who pens The Burning Balaclava, the play within a play and outrageous satire/spoof of Irish theatre. The play’s hilarious denouement sees everybody die in a water pistol shoot out, a nod to sectarianism’s logical end point.

Talking of which… For a northern Protestant (according to my equal opportunities box anyway), Carthaginians is at times an uncomfortable watch. There are no Protestant characters, only caricatures mercilessly mugged by the cast. It is doubly discomfiting to recognise an underlying truth in the stereotype, but then having no rounded, real characters to offset the exaggeration.

Occasional low sound levels aside, this is a fine Millennium Forum production, with a consistently excellent cast. Lucia McAnespie as Greta stands out, all sharp hand actions and pitiless words, her revelatory story a compelling, eye-pricking moment.

Adrian Dunbar’s direction is unfussy and sympathetic to the script. A simple, angular set, at times beautifully lit, effectively manages to be both here and nowhere. The end scene is particularly memorable, filmic even; part tableau part classic coming-of-age tracking shot, the Wizard of Oz meets Midnight Cowboy.

All in all, a moving evening, and how could an elegy for Derry and Bloody Sunday not be. But something is missing and it’s hard to put a finger on. With all this pain being flung around, there just aren’t enough hairs-on-back-of-neck moments.

Maybe I was distracted; the bottle clunking to the floor and rolling noisily, interminably, down the aisle right at the climax of Maela’s tale being a case in point. Maybe it’s because I was expecting a frisson in the theatre for a production coinciding with the 40th anniversary of Bloody Sunday and wasn’t obliged.

How, I wonder, did audiences react when the play was brought to Derry’s Rialto in 1991? With more anger and vengefulness? With more, well, pain? An echo perhaps of one of Carthaginians' central messages that cities and human beings are nothing if not resilient.

Carthaginians is on tour at venues across Northern Ireland in March and April. Check out our What's On listings for more details.