Crows on the Wire
Jonathan Burgess gives voice to those officers who felt betrayed by the reformation of the RUC
In the poem ‘The Journey of the Magi’, TS Eliot spoke of the similarities between birth and death: ‘... I had seen birth and death / But had thought they were different; this Birth was / Hard and bitter agony for us, like Death, our death.'
I am reminded of these lines when watching Jonathan Burgess’s new play Crows on the Wire, premiered in the Waterside Theatre, Derry~Londonderry. It is set in an unnamed police station in November 2001, on the eve of the Patten-induced changeover from the RUC to the PSNI. In effect, a simultaneous birth and death.
Burgess’s play focuses on Jack, an RUC veteran of 30-plus years; Ruth, a former policewoman and Jack's one-time lover; and David, a brash new recruit from university, as they come together intermittently, argue over the changes, and look back over the past.
The play was commissioned by the Verbal Arts Centre, and is a powerful piece of writing, probably the best that Burgess has produced to date. He has never been one to shy away from difficult and controversial topics, as in The Exodus, which explored the voluntary removal of Derry~Londonderry's Protestant community from the west bank of the River Foyle.
Crows on the Wire attempts something similar, allowing hitherto silenced ‘victims’ of the Troubles – in this case members of the RUC – to ‘tell their stories’ for the first time. The early exchanges between Jack and David, the old RUC man and the young PSNI new recruit, are pithy and humorous, spiced with Northern Irelandisms.
The two men are physically contrasted, too. Jack (Gerard McDermott) is stocky and well-built, his natural stance feet apart, legs braced, ready for action. David (Charlie Archer) is slight, a ‘skinny wee short arse’, whose spray-on deodorants make him smell ‘like the inside of a hoor’s handbag’.
David is a little too much of a stock figure, the foil to Jack, carrying no baggage from the past and happy to ‘embrace change’, leaving off the old green uniform and dressing up in the snappy new one-piece PSNI overall, which Jack mocks as his ‘babygro’.
The play’s attempt to give David a ‘hinterland’ – his reason for joining the police that his sister was raped, and then comforted overnight by a policewoman – is presented in a flashback, separate from the main story. However, it is not fully teased out and falls short of making David a fully fleshed-out character.
By contrast Jack’s part is strongly written and his character fully realised, allowing McDermott to give a superb performance. He is the pivot on which the entire play turns.
We are made to feel him an honourable man with a strong sense of duty and pride in his uniform. But, we gather, there has been a darker side in the costs he has had to pay: hints of excessive drinking, the collapse of his marriage, outbursts of violence, and the breakdown of his relationship with his son.
And now, with the dissolution of the RUC, it is given to Jack to put into words the frustration and sense of betrayal felt by so many of his fellow officers at the way they have been ‘sacrificed’ by politicians now that ‘all this peace and love has broken out’. His life is still rooted in those former RUC days, when at least he knew ‘the steps of the dance’. ‘We can’t change the past,’ he says defiantly. ‘It is here to stay.'
Ruth (Denise Stephenson), the former policewoman, is more sketchily drawn. She has a new life, a home by the seaside with her husband, but is still moved to come back to her old station to see Jack on his last night as an RUC officer. Hers is a difficult role, caught between the ‘old’ and the ‘new’, but her sympathies are clearly more with Jack and with the past.
There are other sub-plots, as in allegations of collusion and blackmail, which are somewhat secondary to the main theme. The play ends with Jack recalling the death of his closest friend and RUC colleague from a booby-trapped car bomb. His tone is one of sadness and grief, mixed with anger – as much for the end of an era as for death of his friend.
As for the production, the set – made from former RUC riot shields – is simple and effective, strongly evocative for those of us who lived through the Troubles. But they also suggest the showers and lockers in the staff changing room of a police station. Pauses in the action are marked by flashing lights on the shields and the din and chaos of rioting, and sometimes by more routine messages on the police intercom about a speeding car, for instance.
The opening night audience in the Waterside Theatre, to judge by comments in the after-play discussion, largely sides with the views expressed by Jack. Elsewhere, the play’s subject-matter and presentation will surely excite debate.
However, Crows on the Wire is not essentially provocative. What it does – as with Darragh McIntyre's BBC Northern Ireland programme earlier this month about ‘the disappeared’ – is give a voice to those whom Jack sees as ‘the betrayed’ – individuals who feel that they have not yet had the chance to speak up for themselves.
Crows on the Wire travels to Craic Theatre & Arts Centre, Coalisland on November 22, Share Centre, Lisnaskea on November 23, Strule Arts Centre, Omagh on November 26 and the Riverside Theatre, Coleraine on November 28. Tickets are free, but booking is essential.