In the introduction to her book Moving Politics, Deborah Gould explores what happens when you are emotionally moved by your area of research, what happens ‘when your data makes you cry’. Plain Heroines’ considered and thoughtful The 4th Country transposes this question to the stage, and looks at what happens when performers themselves are personally affected by the contents of their play.
Kate Reid’s well-crafted script deceptively unfurls at first as a naturalistic tragicomedy set in Derry-Londonderry in 2019. Niamh and Conor Fitzgerald (Rachael Rooney and Cormac Elliott), whose family’s tragic history continues to follow them, are being pestered by an English journalist as Soldier F faces charges for Bloody Sunday. But the play begins to rupture, with the performers continuously confronting Reid, playing herself, about which scenes should follow next, which parts of the story should be told, and who, ultimately, should be doing the telling.
Sitting at the centre of the piece is a stunning scene at a bus stop between Rooney’s Niamh, and Reid’s Melanie, a young graduate living with her devout family. In many ways, The 4th Country hinges on this superbly written and expertly acted moment where both women are failed by the horrifically unjust and draconian anti-abortion laws that continued in Northern Ireland then (and even with the decriminalisation of abortion in October 2019, access to basic healthcare services is still limited). Reid’s writing here is so perceptive, so gently funny even amidst despair, so carefully attentive to the ways these women find a sense of solidarity in both the spoken and the unspoken. Director Gabriella Bird rightly gives this encounter the weight it deserves.
So tragic is the bind Niamh finds herself in that Rooney and Elliott (both Irish) protest to their writer: can’t there be another way? No, Reid replies uncomfortably: ‘it’s already been written’. What comes to the surface of The 4th Country is an anxiety of authorship, stemming in some part from the ways in which Northern Ireland’s history and current political issues are so often neglected and misunderstood. This is evidenced by Conor’s English fiancée and lawyer Anna (Aoife Kennan), who, having recently relocated to Derry-Londonderry, fails time after time to adequately understand her new political landscape. ‘We’re not taught about this in school’, she explains, hoping to acquit herself while actually underlining the issue.
But such anxiety of authorship arises also from a question of whose story this is to tell. The play explores the ways in which portrayals about Northern Ireland here are often not from a native perspective but from an English one, making them lamentably overdetermined, often reductive and the actual issues facing its people overlooked. In a climactic effort to redress this, the cast strip back the fictitious story of the Fitzgeralds and instead bear witness to the actual lives affected by Bloody Sunday and anti-abortion laws. It’s powerful and affective, not just for the audience but the performers themselves.
It may be that Reid does her job as a writer a little too well, then, because although we understand why, it feels like we leave each character just a tad too early. Niamh, Conor, Melanie, Anna, even Shona (also played by Kennan) — a formidable civil servant at the Department of Health — are well drawn and smartly performed, and you can’t help but be swept up and want to see more of them. Perhaps there are some plot lines that are lost, and it becomes apparent that the metatheatrical device, while clear in its thematic articulation, has a threshold of effectiveness. Still, Plain Heroines tread this line with skill and precision, and confront with care the personal, the political, and the role of artistic authorship while creating an engaging and poignant drama.
The 4th Country is on at Park Theatre till 5th February. More info here.