TELEVISION / Taking it a stage too far: John Lyttle reviews Billy Roche's The Wexford Trilogy

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The Independent Culture
THERE'S at least one compensation involved in bringing a stage-play to television. You can get to see something you couldn't beg, steal or borrow tickets for during the original run. No shame in that. Theatre is so local - one cast, one proscenium, one prime location - and it's necessary to wait patiently for the experience, sometimes for months (unlike movies - a hundred prints can blanket the country). And unless the form in question is a mega-musical, so ruinously expensive it has to safeguard investors' money with extensive publicity, a production, no matter how praised, can slip under the radar.

Put bluntly, television isn't, as someone once said, 'the ephemeral art'. Theatre is, and it may well face the final curtain unless preserved by the upstart media of film and TV. Seeing a play on the small screen at least gives a sense of what it's about.

Unfortunately, a sense is often all that can be managed. Magic that occurred nightly on stage can evaporate before the camera. Intensity leaks out of the most carefully crafted and compact work.

'Poor Beast in the Rain', the first part of Billy Roche's The Wexford Trilogy (Saturday BBC2), is a case in point. The seductive Irish rhythms of Roche's words survived intact, as did the betting-shop set, haunted by characters who were waiting for Danger Doyle (Liam Cunningham), a local bad boy who had left for England a decade before with another man's wife. Doyle's departure, it became clear, had robbed Joe (Des McAleer) of a best friend, Molly (Ingrid Craigie) of a wary lover, and Eileen (Dervla Kirwan) of a mother. It had also deprived them of excitement, of meaning even. Hence Joe's repetitive mythologising of past adventures ('Sure, the blood was pumping out of him'), Molly's talk of betrayal and Eileen's final decision to depart with Doyle, breaking the dull heart of tentative suitor Georgie (Gary Lydon).

The pieces fitted together beautifully - which was part of the the problem. What once generated theatrical momentum through casual poetry and sympathetic observation of the small dreams, tiny tragedies and occasional laughs that constitute a certain type of small- town existence looked simultaneously exposed and set in amber. Truthfulness turned trite: the lens focusing on practised agony in jarring close-up.

Pressed against the actors' skin - as when Molly caught sight of Danger after 10 years apart - you felt trapped, idly reduced to reading her mournful Mona Lisa face the way the camera dictated. What was formerly a portrait in hurting flesh had become a blunt snapshot, a Polaroid of pain.

Yet to bemoan the limitations imposed is ingratitude of the highest order. Roache's writing - and love of ordinary people - offered satisfactions light years beyond TV's own currently declining drama standards. You understood how The Wexford Trilogy worked before the footlights. And that's the best (and worst) television can do.

Journalist Maggie O'Kane was also doing her best. Frontline (Sunday C4) followed her through the rubble and ruins of the former Yugoslavia as she interviewed local reporters, smug, sinister Serbian warlords, trigger-happy American volunteers and the aptly named Milan Panic, the Prime Minister Slobodan Milosevic, appointed for PR purposes and dismissed when he displayed a will of his own.

This ruthlessness - an ability to sign 22 agreements and break them all - only partly explained Milosevic's rise to power. One could quibble with O'Kane's dismissal of the fall of Communism as a major factor in the new Balkan wars, but she proved her main point: Milosevic's cynical embrace of nationalism lit the blue touch paper without letting anyone retire to a safe distance.

If the film was less a straight documentary and more an angry, unfocused essay, that was fine. Rage is a natural response to ethnic cleansing. Only the morally bereft could pretend objectivity when Voyislav Seselj, leader of the Serbian Radical Party, laughed off Muslim claims of rape and murder with the words: 'If you have a problem with your stomach, I cannot help you.'