Venue: Lyric Theatre, Belfast
Dates: 10 to 27 October 2018
Writer: Thomas Kilroy
Who did Brendan Bracken and William Joyce see when they looked into the mirror? Did they see two Irishmen: the first the Tipperary-born son of a militant republican father, the second an Irish-American, born in New York and raised in Galway? Or did they see two reinvented upper crust Englishmen, key players in World War II’s propaganda battle?
The two men would rise to dubious prominence, one as Churchill’s Minister of Information, the other as the sinister Lord Haw Haw, scourge of the population of little Britain and mouthpiece of the German Führer. Both relied heavily on their fluency and facility with the spoken and written word, a fact which Thomas Kilroy exploits to full intellectual and verbal potential in a play which has gathered new contemporary currency since its memorable 1986 Field Day premiere.
Designer Ciaran Bagnall and director Jimmy Fay have taken a bold step in opting for a traverse production, which seats the audience on both sides of the polished wood flooring and thereby underlines the play’s title. At one end is the innocuous little wireless set through which Joyce broadcasts his sleekit threats and knowing asides directly into Bracken’s receptive ear. As time goes by, he will come to haunt his opposite number’s waking and sleeping hours, penetrating his psyche and driving him mad.
At the other end of the space, Bagnall magnifies the propaganda significance of the radio microphone, incorporating its imagery into a large, cross-hatched window through which German bomber planes can be seen flying, night after night.
There is, however, a downside to the staging decision in that it runs the risk of lines going unheard, depending on which direction the actor is facing. And in a play which could be defined as a war of words, the loss of a line can be crucial.
While being a tad youthful for the central dual roles, Ian Toner handles Kilroy’s demanding text with the same deftness and dexterity with which he juggles the clutter of phones on his desk. There is a fascinating vocal and physical delicacy about his performance, which becomes more finely nuanced as the swirling drama unfolds, exposing the deep-seated vulnerability of the two main players.
His Bracken is a posturing, insecure, sexually ambiguous political operator, with a faux accent and a ludicrous wig. Manipulative and waspish, he turns sickeningly obsequious when his boss – “Winston!” is on the line.
Just before the interval, shorn of his wig and returned to his natural self, he morphs into the black shirted figure of Joyce’s creepy alter ego Lord Haw-Haw, whose nightly broadcasts from Berlin sent fear across the Channel but whose acquisition of British citizenship ultimately set him up for execution.
Here and there emerge faint whispers of what the Nazis called ‘the final solution’ – the planned extermination of the Jewish race. There are echoes of the Arbeit Macht Frei slogan at the entrance to Auschwitz, while Joyce’s final hours see him gaunt and wasted, clad in a blue and white striped shirt similar to those handed out to inmates of the camps.
Fay employs moveable gauze screens and projected news footage to bring the social climate of the 1940s into full focus. It is also a clever way of placing Joyce and Bracken face to face, shoulder to shoulder, for the only time in their strangely parallel lives. But for all the production’s carefully crafted period detail, it soon becomes evident that this 32 year-old play, with its themes of identity, political expediency, rising right wing nationalism, fake news and media spin is an uncannily apt anthem for our own troubled times.
Nattily costumed Charlotte McCurry crisply covers the female roles, the most sharply drawn of which is Joyce’s single-minded fascist wife Margaret. And the versatile Sean Kearns skilfully and with great stage presence, spans class and nationality divides as the powerful newspaper proprietor Lord Beaverbrook, a London fire warden, bumbling German Erich and a menacing, barrel-chested Nazi officer.
This is an extended version of the review which was published in The Stage on 15 October 2018.