TO MARK 1993, a year that sees the dismantling of frontiers within the European Community, the Tricycle Theatre is presenting four plays about one of the last remaining borders in Europe to be a focus of bloody conflict. Bill Morrison's trilogy A Love Song for Ulster was shown at this address earlier in the year and viewed the problem of divided Ireland from the perspective of a Northern dramatist. Now, as part of Lift (the London International Festival of Theatre), the Tricycle is hosting the Galway-based Druid Theatre Company's powerful production of At the Black Pig's Dyke by Vincent Woods, a play that gives us a Southern writer's angle on the same disputed border.
In their spirit of olive branch-waving pity for both sides, there's much that connects the two pieces. Both make the saying 'Revenge is a long road . . .' acutely felt, by vividly dramatising how sectarian hatred is handed down like a poisoned legacy from generation to generation. And to offer any hope of a way out of this cycle, both playwrights have to resort to wishful or fantasticated conclusions. In terms of technique and theatrical style, however, the two works make a very different impact.
Spanning three-quarters of a century, from the Partition to the present day, Morrison's trilogy allegorised the history of this troubled island through the tribulations of one Ulster family. Unfortunately, the allegory began to look like speeded-up soap opera as relationships rattled forward with undignifed haste so the play could mirror everything from the Civil War to the Seventies' hunger strikes.
Pungently directed by Maeliosa Stafford, At the Black Pig's Dyke veers to the opposite extreme. It fixes its focus on just two generations, through whom we get the keen sense of a chain of rancour stretching much further back. It is also thick with myths and rituals. Dominating the play is a troupe of dancing, ululating, straw-masked mummers of the kind that toured the northern counties in mid-winter with crudely versified, knockabout folk dramas of heroic conflict, death and resurrection. The eery trick Woods pulls is to assimilate this benign force for community and regeneration to another outfit that also operates in masks and jealously guards tradition but has no 'hocus-pocus' routine to resurrect the men it butchers.
The troupe's primitive, sinister double-identity here produces some electrifying moments of theatre when, clashing staves and rustling their great straw and ribboned curtain, the mummers envelop or release a victim. Not knowing from what sections of the community such troupes draw their members, I'm not entirely clear what the play is trying to say with this equation. That the IRA is the reverse side of the same coin, or that all tradition and ritual must be deemed profoundly ambiguous in a country like Ireland? Certainly, it's interesting that when the leader suspiciously questions his mummers after they stumble on a particular killing, he addresses them not by their real names but by their generic appellations in the mumming show. It seems as odd as interrogating Punch and Judy about some terrorist atrocity.
Confusing at first, the play's out-of-sequence structuring and running together of present action and remembered event come to make beautiful sense, sharply emphasising repeated generational patterns and tragic inevitability.
'It was a long time ago and it was not a long time ago'; it's no wonder that a play which presents evil in mythic terms can only express its vision of a hopeful future by blatant recourse to fable.
'At the Black Pig's Dyke' continues to 31 July at the Tricycle Theatre, London NW6 (071-328 1000). Lift continues to 12 July (071-413 1459).
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