Summoned from 1860s Ottawa, the ghost of James Patrick Whelan appears before us, agitated and haughty (you’d be disappointed too if you’re used to playing audiences 10,000 strong). Pierre Brault’s 1999 play views the mechanics of theatre as similar to those of a court trial, using them to re-examine evidence that controversially hanged Whelan for murdering a politician.
This Brick Wall Theatre production acts as a kind of homecoming; Whelan, an Ottawa-based tailor, was a Galway-born immigrant. Performer Jérémie Cyr-Cooke vigorously sets about recreating the sensitive atmosphere after Canada’s confederation under the British crown, a time when Fenian rebels are stirring trouble.
What’s striking, in an economic staging with simply an actor and a chair, is the wealth of physical detail. Cyr-Cooke drags Whelan restlessly between scenes, mapping a corporeal afterlife of pain and torment. His rich portraiture helps us keep track of the play’s characters throughout, from a barrel-chested prosecutor to a hunch-backed defender.
Building and showing both cases, the play sets up questionable witnesses that Whelan’s solicitor cross-examines and knocks down one-by-one. But despite disproving a detective’s story, the testimony feeds the jury a plot twist too tempting to ignore, one that points to a Fenian conspiracy. Whelan’s fate is sealed.
As Brault’s play stiffens into a courtroom drama, you can help but think this is a genre in which words, for once, speak louder than actions. Where Cyr-Cooke’s physical theatre flourishes initially evoked a haunted reality, they start to feel like a flashy lacquer layered onto the action, as opposed to mining it for new meaning. The style becomes extraneous.
Even in a production as painstakingly kinetic as this, you’d still wish things would slow down. It seems like a missed opportunity not to dwell more with Whelan’s agonising questions about his wife’s loyalty and his God’s salvation. It’s no coincidence, perhaps, that the performance’s most affecting moment is when he, with no physical devices, takes the stand and pleads for his innocence.
Cyr-Cooke’s arch physicality works best in macabre pictures, in recreating a gunshot, a human heartbeat thumping in alarming fear, or a body squirming in the gallows. In those moments, it becomes clear that this is Whelan, guts and all.
Blood on the Moon was at Galway Theatre Festival until April 19th. For more details, click here.