The premise is a well-worn one: the reunion ten years on of a group of university friends, and the ferocious banter, revelations and fall-out of that apparently simple gathering.
The debts of this kind of tightly-focussed social comedy to British theatre are obvious and set the bar high (Mike Bartlett’s Love, Love, Love being the best recent example). Nonetheless, Digging for Fire sets out its stall for a version speaking to the particular Irish situation – a situation that in many ways isn’t particularly Irish at all, as it turns out. But according to the Irish-ing plan, at least, issues of class take a back seat and the palliative faux-liberalism of talk radio muscles in instead. ‘It’s quite subversive, really’, says Breda, producer of the ghastly talkshow of Bryan Reynolds, a nation’s pander. And to copperfasten its Irishness, the play’s sympathies switch to the most creative talkers and seekers, the deeper conversation about the country is catalysed by the return of an emigrant, just as resolution – of plot, of lives, of problems – is reliably found by addressing vast quantities of drink.
A founder member of Rough Magic himself, Declan Hughes’s play, Digging for Fire, was first produced in 1991, and its cultural references remain firmly fixed in that moment: Bret Easton Ellis’s American Psycho, REM, New Order. Not forgetting the holiday freedoms remembered from older British influences of the Sex Pistols and, well, Enid Blyton. But they are far more than cultural references for these middle-class Dubliners, but rather markers of identity, aspirations, escape for a generation whose university education and student ideals they still hold close. (Some closer than others, as it turns out.)
A shot across the bows of a pre-Celtic Tiger Ireland when it was first produced (and the fussing over home décor with which all the conversations begin is a dead giveaway), this revival pitches itself into another moment of uncertainty. The scales have fallen from our eyes now, though, and it feels nostalgic to find some of the hottest debate centred on whether or not Ireland really is a ‘special little enclave’ pluckily holding strong against the vulgar tide of modernity. Closer to home nowadays is its deep-seated sense of being on the precipice and doing anything they can to hold off ‘the chaos’. And the inability to imagine the future is not solely an Irish problem any more.
Among Hughes’s targets are the glorification of Irish ‘talk’ culture: talk radio, tall stories, comforting lies – in fact, talk as anything but activity or truth-telling. (The trick for the writer, of course, is not to fall into the same trap.) That eternal playing around with language and story-telling so proudly credited as the unique heritage of Irish writers is pulled up short only in the face of terminal illness: ‘it’s a disease, not a metaphor’, the artist Emily bellows. Ironically, it is the talking scenes at the beginning of the play that are the least compelling, a little flabby, lacking in pace and development. These may well connect better following the previews. The more physically demanding scenes later on, on the other hand, glitter. The production is ably directed by Matt Torney, a graduate of Rough Magic’s SEED programme. Ciaran Bagnall’s set (in the round) does some subtle updating of the 1991 context, mixing antiques and IKEA. Crass and funny, melancholic and raucous, the play feels fresh, even if its characters slide too readily into ‘types’ – and lesser spotted privileged types these days too.
An impressive line-up of talks during the run (free, but must be pre-booked) include contributions by Anne Enright, Catriona Crowe, Roy Foster and Declan Hughes, as well as rehearsed readings of two further plays, promises to unpick still further what becomes a conversation-killer in the play: ‘it’s a great little country after all’.