Bodies hit the ground fast in Peter McGann and John Morton’s new play. The opening kerfuffle, set during the Irish War of Independence, sees men rush onstage, diving for their lives, manoeuvring scenery for cover, and exchanging gunfire with offstage enemies. Building a nation is dirty business.
Before he was imprisoned for his part in the 1916 Rising, Irish revolutionary leader Michael Collins left instructions to assemble a hit squad of the country’s most foul and unstable mercenaries to counter British intelligence efforts. That is why a one-eyed hothead (Morton) and a defrocked priest (Dave Fleming) have invited a doctor who faked his own death to escape debt (Stephen Colfer) to their poker table. It’s a cause up there with the Fianna and the rest of Ireland’s legendary heroes, explains Tadhh McRoth (David Fennelly), a Gaeilgeoir who has his eyes on bar manager “Bould” Kathleen (Annette O’Shea), doubling as the play’s narrator. He’s not the first romantic to fall for a Kathleen.
Appropriately, the play is produced by Kilkenny’s Devious Company, who for ten years has been rarely shy of a sally while wreaking havoc across the country. McGann and Morton’s bouncy script, full of guerrilla missions and double cross twists, has a colloquial quip for every jackeen, schan and langer. With dramaturg Ken Bourke, the writers play on Irish theatre and performance history; in a second act highlight, John Doran’s excellent thespian Finbarr McLiammoir infiltrates the makeshift theatre of an English army barracks.
For all its best intentions, this production isn’t fully ready. Director Sarah Baxter battles to create neat and arresting images, aided by Adrian Mullan’s atmospheric lighting, but many lines are lost as players on the heavily populated stage communicate more to each other than to the audience. It doesn’t help that they keep dropping their guns! Similarly, Helen McGinty’s set of wooden rostra is flexible but wobbly, with one element collapsing on the night.
These might be minor setbacks for seekers of a fine fire-fight, for a good old fashioned shootout combines cinematic slow motion with savvy stagecraft. As a whole, it bears the underhanded tactics of Tarantino’s Inglorious Bastards or Nick Fury’s Howling Commandos but it isn’t as successful as previous Devious productions that balanced big budget movie premises with nuanced explorations of social outcasts. Though there are glimpses of alienation in the alcoholic vices of the group, in the homosexual longing of Ed Murphy’s dandy protestant, and in the resentment of McGann’s spurned ladykiller.
Admirably, the playmakers are more interested in a reclamation project, restoring these secret fighters to the record. Even lowlifes deserve to be remembered.
The Hellfire Squad is on until 23rd July 2016. Click here for more information.