“When you’re young, you don’t know who you are.” The opening lines of The Speckled People, are repeated three times—first, in English, by the child, Hanni; second, in German, by his “Mutti” Ingmar; and third, in Irish, by his father, Seán— thus foregrounding the play’s central preoccupations with language, family and identity.
The new play by Hugo Hamilton, adapted from his fictionalized memoir of the same title, is set in the Dublin seaside suburb of Dún Laoghaire in the 1950s, and narrates the coming-of-age of young Hanni Ó hUrmoltaigh, a child born to a German mother and an Irish father. Forbidden to speak English by his severe father, an obsessive advocate of the Irish-language, Hanni grows up between languages, swimming vertiginously between Irish and German within the household and feeling as if every time he walks out the front door he is “emigrating into English.” Language is both a realm of possibility and a prison-house for the young boy, who is barred from friendship with English-speaking children, like an exile in his own country. He is a living incarnation of “speckled” identity, mixed-up, “Irish on top, and German on bottom,” like the incongruous outfit of Aran sweater and lederhosen he wears on their beach-side rambles.
Most of the play’s conflict derives from the father-son clash over language, and the ways in which the politics of cultural identity, nationalism, and translation speak to larger historical conditions. The spectres of WWII and of colonialism haunt the personal identities of Hanni’s parents, nightmares of history that tragically shape the family and saturate Hanni’s own dreams. In the second act, the family secrets that come tumbling out of the closet (in a clever use of an on-stage wardrobe) prove crucial to Hanni learning who his father and mother really “are,” and thus who he is himself.
Tadhg Murphy infuses the role of Hanni with a kinetic, antic energy which aptly captures the “strange, big-eyed, scary shape of childhood” in the physicality of his performance, though the rationale to cast an adult for the part is not entirely clear. The rest of the cast deliver accomplished performances: brooding insecurity from Denis Conway as the father; brittle brightness from Julika Jenkins as the mother, and a vivacious comic turn from Marion O’Dwyer as Aunt Eily.
The set design is delightful, transforming the stage into a “memory room.” The construction of a second proscenium creates an intimate, domestic space in which a child’s bed is central, with evocative murals in blue-green pastels drawn across white walls in a child’s naïvely exuberant scrawl: leaping fishes, joyful waves, rocking boats, but also on two darker panels, images of mass emigration, bomber planes, and fire. It thus stages the whole spectrum of the child’s imagination: from the exhilaration of seaside play, to the queasiness of diaspora and the violence of war. The lighting design deploys deep aqueous blues to suggest submarine secrets and currents of memory and the crashing of the “big-bellied” waves.
The rather generic translation from memoir to play is not always convincing: the reflective lyricism permeating Hamilton’s prose does not lend itself as well to drama. The play comes most alive during the ensemble set-pieces, but can feel stilted during the numerous flashbacks and monologues. However, as a whole, this is a fine production, cleanly executed, stylishly performed, and full of lyrical insights into the nature of identity shaped through language and history.
Part of the Ulster Bank Dublin Theatre Festival. For more information, visit the festival website.