As a British ex-pat in Ireland one gets wearily used to being indirectly beaten for the supposed ‘eight-hundred years of British oppression.’ Then along comes writer Richard Dormer with a whole tanker-load of petrol to keep the flames of Irish Martyrdom bravely blazing.
Not content with the near millenium under the British jackboot, in Dormer’s play about Irish mobsters, commissioned by the Abbey Theatre, the Irish have suffered “maybe more even than the Jews. They teach you about the Famine back home?” The question is asked by mob boss Gulliver Sullivan, of his nephew from Belfast, confounding, as happens throughout the play, the North with the Irish Republic. “It’s a terrible trait in the Irish” he goes on, “hunger. We never forgot it. We were oppressed and denied for so long, now we feel entitled to everything, and more. Creatures of excess. One day it’ll be our downfall.” Not only are the British – odd that Dormer fails to finger the Oppressors by name – responsible for Irish gangsterism, but also for their current malaise: for ‘downfall’ read Irish economic crash.
Gulliver is the chief mythomaniac, bemoaning the travails attendant on the Irish diaspora, and applauding the triumph of the Irish over institutional adversity. Triumph? They got to the Moon! The action is set in 1969, over the week of the Moon Landing, and the first words we hear are John F. Kennedy’s from his 1961 speech announcing America’s grandiose intention. “John F. Kennedy…a true pioneer” Sullivan opines, “From Ireland, to America, to the Moon, that’s quite a journey.” And let’s not forget, as another mobster reminds us, there was a Michael Collins in the Lunar Orbiter.
Sean Holmes’ beautifully spare production is the sugar that makes Dormer’s breathtaking racial sycophancy go down however. Blood-sugar, rather than anything sweet to the senses. After the opening tidbit of Camelotian Cold War technological one-upmanship we’re treated to a fresh corpse being expertly dismembered by the silent Walter Sorrow while Drum Belly, Sullivan’s top hit man indulges in a self-justificatory rant of purest Goodfellas’ vintage.
Blood is everywhere, flowing stage-furniture, poured onto the floor from plastic tubs, and thickly washing from Paul Keogan’s lights. Sullivan dips the toe of his expensive shoe in a great viscous pool of the stuff and spells out: HONESTY on the floor, while Mickey No No, being interrogated over the disappearance of a $100,000 payment from the Italian mob, tries not to look on. It’s a scene that wouldn’t be out of place in Coppola’s The Godfather.
Some of the most evocative moments don’t directly involve gore, and one of them, involving Sullivan’s willfully dumb nephew Bobby, is entirely silent, apart from ‘Baby It’s You’ by The Shirelles playing in the background. Bobby sits alone at a cafe table facing us and suddenly up-ends the salt-cellar and drains it onto the floor. The pullover-clad gawky Bobby is very much Quantity X. Is he an innocent or Sullivan’s soon-to-be anointed successor? This mute pouring of the condiment, saline with symbolism, is one of the most violent acts in the play, and though at that point we’re still ignorant of Bobby’s nature, it strikes an ominously decisive note.
The performances also make Dormer’s Hibernian homage palatable, in some cases deliciously so. Conlon is quietly superb as Sullivan, his subtle notes of weariness dyeing the emerald green of his pronouncements to a more muted shade, though the sense of menace rarely leaves him. He’s at his most elegantly threatening during the Mickey No-No scene. “It’s alright Michael. Your nervous. That’s understandable. In your position I’d be terrified. Take a deep breath.” He then leads Mickey in a demonstration of the deep-breathing technique.
Liam Carney is also fairly powerful as Drum Belly, so called for his youthful knack of taking stomach punches in return for drinks. As an obnoxious murdering thug I suppose we’re not meant to like him, and we don’t, but standard issue gangster types usually come with some redeeming feature. Drum Belly has none, though even Joe Pesci’s Goodfellas psycho-killer was amusing when he wasn’t gouging eyes out with fountain pens.
The rest of the cast are up to scratch. Ciaran O’Brien is enjoyable as Johnny the Fox Sullivan’s spritely young left arm. Ronan Leahy and Phelim Drew as foot-soldiers ‘Wicklow’ and ‘Antrim’ are also entertaining. They’re the predictable spliff-smoking, juke-box jiving liggers, exactly the type no self-respecting mob boss would entrust with fetching a pastrami-on-rye from the local deli.