Chapter, Cardiff, Wed 17 May 2006, 8pm, £3 on the door
Da (Bull Man Rourke) – John Pierce Jones
Ma ( Breda Rourke) – Julie Gibbs
Fin ( Finoulla Rourke) – Helen Vance
Skully (Bull’s brother) – Michael Kelligan
Rory – Mark Sullivan
The On The Edge season of rehearsed readings at Chapter ended with what should have been a bang – an explosive humanitarian play from Wales-based Kaite O’Reilly – but while a lot more than a whimper it exposed the limitations of this kind of economy theatre.
Script-in-hand readings can, as we have seen here, be thrilling, the rawness of the production allowing the words to dominate – a notable case being the first complete showing of Ian Rowlands’s Blink at the beginning of this season.
But it’s a delicately-balanced business, setting off the freshness with the problems of limited rehearsal time, and director Elen Bowman here seemed to want to mitigate the difficulties by reminding us at the outset that this was a “reading” and referring to her cast not as actors but as “readers”.
This is disingenuous. They are, of course, acting not reading as they portray the members of this dysfunctional Birmingham-Irish family: Helen Vance, currently a postgrad at the Royal Welsh College of Music and Drama, acted the pregnant daughter with subtlety and a maturity that belies her age and experience, while Michael Kelligan, not only the producer but occasional director and actor of the On The Edge project, overacted the role of the dodgy Skully but did it with conviction. Mark Sullivan’s laid-back style worked in this case as the naïve and simple-minded Rory but John Pierce Jones relied too much on his towering physical presence as the bullying Da, never finding the character or, painfully, the accent (which seemed a tortured amalgam of Brooklyn, London and Sydney). Julie Gibbs seemed at a loss as how to play the abused wife and only when she let her voice get above a whisper and let out her rage was she credible.
But all were acting not reading and their different approaches to acting made this a far from ensemble performance, which it needs to be. There’s a more than a touch of the Sean O’Casey about Yard and that very Irish character was evident only in some of the more authentic accents, with little obvious rapport between the actors.
The play itself, however, was strong enough to survive the vagaries and varieties of this particular script-in-hand production. Set in a butcher’s shop and slaughterhouse, it is a multi-layered allegory of bullying, abuse, oppression and male aggression – while the resonances are obvious the Troubles, Kaite O’Reilly’s inspiration for Yard comes from her time working in Kosovo.
The irredeemably awful paterfamilias, Bull Man Rourke, a butcher who has lost his care for the necessary art and integrity of the trade, is an archetypal tyrant, but one whose violence and dodgy practices will see him fall. For the playwright, the wider issues here seem to be gender-based: it is an indictment of violence and abuse as practised by men, albeit sometimes unopposed by acquiescent women, and the play suffers a little from its feminist sexism.
Perhaps the play needs the reality of meat carcasses and the offal that is invisible here to get across powerfully the stench of the slaughterhouse: not only is this anti-male but anti-carnivore. In the intimate space of Chapter’s smaller performance space,
however, I for one was glad we didn’t actually have the hearts and the skinned rabbits.
Within the savagery and conflict that dominates the play there is not only passion but humour and wit and while Wales may only claim Ms O’Reilly as a relatively recent resident (Cardigan from Birmingham by way of Glamorgan University) it would be good to see her powerful, intelligent plays here.