“There’s neither conscience nor honesty from one end of the country to the other.” One could be forgiven for imagining this to be a soundbite from Joe Duffy or Vincent Browne, or from one of the myriad disgruntled Letters To The Editor. It could have been prompted by any number of dirty deals or wrought by any number of perceived scoundrels, be it the Banks or Irish Water or the Church or the State or The Whole Filthy Lot Of Them. It’s a catch-all condemnation, fitting almost everything in our sorry state of current affairs. And the sad thing is it’s a line in an Irish play that’s almost a hundred years old. Plus ҫa change, eh?
The Abbey Theatre’s superb production of O’Casey’s The Shadow of a Gunman has been given a bit of a wipe and a spit-shine to reflect its timelessness. While still obviously set in a tenement in Hilljoy (Mountjoy) Square in 1920, it could effectively be any modern slum in a city where money is scarce, spirits are low and hollow rhetoric is high. It could well be set in some of the houses still standing in Mountjoy Square, and still occupied; we’re slow to get rid of our ancient relics round these parts. And that was the joy of this production – O’Casey’s play is shot through (if you’ll excuse the pun), with a 21st century zeitgeist in which Cathleen Ni Houlihan’s most prominent sons just can’t resist the lure of the “fumble in the greasy till” but still – a century later – fail to provide for so many of their siblings. The oppression of the Black & Tans may be history, but we’ve gotten philosophical about other great oppressions, like rack rents and slums and the increasing swell of our dispossessed.
Donal Davoren and Seumas Shields, played by Mark O’Halloran and David Ganly respectively, excel themselves as true beacons of modern Irishness – all mouth and no trousers – quoting Shelley like the heroic intellectuals they believe themselves to be, and then crumbling like pastries when the brown stuff hits the fan. But the real poetry in the play is in the Dublinese for which O’Casey had such an acute ear. The counterpoint between comedy and terror is beautifully crafted, and the climax is terrific, with Davoren’s remorse and crushing self-disgust worthy of a Greek tragedy.
The entire production renders exquisite passion and pathos and is a fitting homage to O’Casey. It’s dark, frightening, funny and unmissable.