“I’m writing about the inner city,” explains a journalist with slight hesitation, late in Colin Murphy’s new documentary play. It’s the early 1980s, and due to a freak event in politics, eyes have turned to Dublin’s city centre.
A community activist, stern in the shape of Peter Coonan, dispels the myth: “‘Inner city’ is a concept, a label, an abstraction.” In director Conall Morrison’s brisk production, it’s clear that certain terms have become a distraction.
Murphy’s latest ‘script in hand’ play for Fishamble – where actors read from scripts while deconstructing reportage of real events – looks back on Tony Gregory, a campaigner who fought to refurbish social housing in Dublin when local authorities were repositioning to bulldoze it. We meet Ruairí Heading’s young and level-headed Gregory distinguishing between the brief release of successful activism and greater substantial change. Running for parliament becomes a tactical decision: to have a man on the inside.
In previous plays Guaranteed! and Bailed Out!, Murphy reshaped the recent plummet of Irish banks towards insolvency as calamities almost tragic in intensity. If this new work feels lopsided into broader and more satirical ground, it’s probably because of Charles Haughey, just by showing up. The Republic’s most controversial leader lends himself easily to comedy; one minute Haughey (Morgan Jones, oily in a suit) is deflecting journalists’ questions about his suspicious wealth and militant history, the next he sits irritated at his desk.
When a general election returns no majority, the scrambling of politicians into a leadership contest, or stubbornly abstaining from negotiations completely, makes for a solid farce. Where Murphy cuts deepest is in scenes of debate at the Gregory camp, where the painful sacrifice of a socialist’s dream is necessary to become part of the establishment, and worse: make a deal to forge Haughey as Taoiseach.
The storytelling gets a little convenient towards the end, with a narrator illuminating the legacy of those negotiations – the reinvigoration of the city centre, remembered as the ‘Gregory Deal’. Busily writing the 32-page document, secretary Elaine (a bright Janet Moran) says she learned typing in “some crappy course from a community project.” The city seems to be reaping the benefits of its residents.
Those promises weren’t kept, which may shed light on Ireland’s current housing crisis. Murphy, like Gregory before him, is suspicious of the branding of Dublin city centre, whether as the ‘inner city’ or ‘Dublin’s North Central Quarter’ – it doesn’t deal with the problems.
Haughey|Gregory was at the Abbey Theatre, Dublin, until February 10th. For more details, click here.