“We were like brothers once upon a time,” says The Reverend – known as “The Rev” to most – inside a cemetery in the mountains. His colleague Donal doesn’t share his nostalgia: “I think events have pushed us long beyond that.”
Since his debut play Brothers of the Brush, Jimmy Murphy has sought to put shape on deprivation. This new drama is set to resonate, at a time when Dublin is the setting of a serious gang feud. Friends from childhood, The Rev (Rex Ryan) and Donal (Ruairí Heading) have been enemy gang-leaders for over a decade. Today, after a alarming amount of bloodshed, they’re arranging a ceasefire.
It makes sense that Ryan, whose company Glass Mask produces, is drawn to such material. He was just seen in Mark O’Rowe’s Made in China, a violent drama about criminal foot soldiers in a Dublin underworld. Idlewild seems an ideal opportunity to address recent concerns.
Though there are snipers and vivid descriptions of assassinations, this shapes up to be a surprisingly reflective affair rather than something more action-filled. Murphy directs the play like a historic meeting between rivals, arriving in suave suits and sunglasses. They dig a grave. One of them will fill it by the end.
Along the way, The Rev describes the transformed landscape of organised crime (“The days of robbing a bank with a knife & fork went out with our grandfathers”) and is revealed as a calculating and cold-blooded capitalist. Donal’s operation takes a different approach; he doesn’t agree with dealing heroine, even for a profit.
But this is a sombre gang drama lacking emotional heft. Ryan seems to be working too hard. As The Rev lingers on their days of friendship, the actor restrains from digging into something that feels quite tragic: a life stripped of its innocence. Elsewhere, Heading’s delivery is deliciously cynical and nicely agitated. Of course, the youthful energy of both makes them more obvious choices for the Scooby gang than career criminals.
It’s admirable of Murphy to show these personally motivated attacks as a means to expose violence that is more institutional in form – the stolen childhoods of the homeless, and the purgatorial existence of those on hospital waiting lists. That shift in perspective suggests a drama less indebted to a sensational thriller than it is to Harold Pinter.
Glass Mask’s first production as company-in-residence at Smock Alley Theatre is slow out the gate. But there are signs it can catch up.
Idlewild is on until 11 August 2018 at Smock Alley Theatre, Dublin. Click here for more details.