An Irishman, an Englishman and an American. The set up for Frank McGuinness’ play sounds like the opening line of a joke – which is fitting, as humour plays a vital role in this intense three-hander set during the Beirut hostage crisis. Laughter keeps the characters sane; it’s their best defence against the situation in which they have found themselves – to cry, to scream, to beg, would be to let their captors win.
The play is also a celebration of the imagination. The three hostages, Adam, an American doctor, Edward, an Irish journalist, and Michael, a widowed English academic, gain a degree of freedom in this way: through fantasy, through the sharing of stories. The men re-enact famous tennis matches, they compose letters home which they know they can never send, and they take a ride in a flying car: in this way, briefly, they soar, for a few fleeting moments they leave their dark, windowless world behind.
These three disparate men, thrown together, stripped of all they own and know, sweat-stained and unshaven, are each other’s only means of support. They come to respect one another and maybe even to love one another. Robin Soans’ Michael is the last to arrive. A bond has already formed between Billy Carter’s Edward and Joseph Timms’ Adam; they know each other’s habits, fears and dreams. Initially Michael and Edward clash, they rub each other up the wrong way, they make little digs at the other’s expense. In part it’s an Irish/English thing, a cultural chasm they make little effort to bridge. Michael in particular is written (and played), at least at first, as a stereotypically fusty, emotionally limited Englishman of a certain era, fond of tea and a nice glass of sherry, but as their situation becomes even more fraught and desperate, their relationship becomes warmer. A rare tenderness develops between the two men, the kind of connection that can only be classed as love.
The play, a fictionalised version of the hostage ordeal of Brian Keenan and John McCarthy, covers a period of years; the passing of time is marked by bursts of violent white light. There’s something Beckettian about their situation – the endless waiting, the little rituals and routines, the idea that the freedom they yearn for may never come – but McGuinness is also alert to the psychological reality of confinement. The slow erosion of Adam’s emotional strength is upsetting to watch; he turns increasingly inwards, his confident façade falls away revealing his fears and weakness.
Jessica Swale’s consistently engaging production – which marks the play’s twentieth anniversary – emphasises the venue’s capacity for claustrophobia; she uses black curtains to reduce the performance space and to force the characters even closer together. The trains which regularly rumble overhead become part of the fabric of things. As the three men cast glances at the ceiling where their unseen captors sit, the overhead roar and whine, the grind of metal on metal, takes on an increasingly ominous air.
Swale also draws excellent performances from her cast. Soans soon transcends the limitations of his buttoned-up character and Timms subtly conveys Adam’s increasing fragility, his deliberate drawing away from the others as he comes to terms with the fact that, as an American, he stands to suffer most. Billy Carter has the most complex role; as Edward, he is brash, quick-tempered and combative but also compassionate, capable of gentleness, in many ways the most robust of the three.
McGuinness’ play deliberately keeps the politics of the situation at arms’ length, but its emotional charge comes from this sharpness of focus, this blotting out of all else save for these three men, their cramped subterranean cell and the stories they tell each other in order to survive.