THEATRE / Civil strife: Paul Taylor reviews Helen Edmundson's The Clearing at the Bush

Paul Taylor
Monday 12 October 2015 13:50

Helen Edmundson's The Clearing pushes you into a tangled thicket of conflicting allegiances as it focuses feelingly on the effects of Cromwell's brutal suppression of Ireland and his policy of enforced transplantation, or 'to Hell or Connaught' as it became known.

The last play we saw in London that trained its gaze as fixedly on early modern Ireland was Brian Friel's Making History, which used the discrepancies between the downhill career of the 16th-century Gaelic leader Hugh O'Neill and the nationalist myth into which it was twisted to examine the irony that partisan historians can be more effective than activists in changing history.

Sensitively directed by Lynne Parker, Edmundson's play makes a more direct appeal to the emotions, showing the strains imposed by the threat of transplantation on a young English landowner, Robert Preston (a golden boy all too aware that he's tarnishing in Adrian Rawlins's fine performance), and Maddy, his Irish beauty of a wife, played with fiery charisma and sardonic sexuality by Susan Lynch.

Around this central relationship are other figures whose fates point up the ironies of living in such an unstraightforwardly divided polity. Unlike Robert, who declared for neither side in the civil war, his neighbour Solomon (Michael O'Hagan) fought for the Royalists. So now, though he is an English settler who moved to Ireland as a result of government enticement, he finds his home imperilled by confiscation and his family treated like animals by their 'own kind'.

In such circumstances, Robert's Irish wife is a liability, particularly given that the icy Governor (Stephen Boxer) is not only a fanatical ethnic cleanser, but seems to have obscure personal reasons for wanting the Englishman to renounce his spouse.

You sometimes feel that the play is a bit too sold on the idea of the Irish as a 'sweet, strange' people, with a hotline to the spiritual. This is particularly the case with the strange Killaine (Anna Livia Ryan), whose abduction by the English spurs Maddy to reckless action and permanently blights her marriage. True, there's a scene in which Maddy pretends to have witchy, 'Irish' powers as a way of scoffing at the Governor's credulous English prejudices. But it's interesting that the play forbears to blame her for the fact that, as a way to achieve her aims, this charade is disastrously self-indulgent, ensuring not only a complete lack of cooperation over Killaine but that her own family will be put on the transportation list.

Turning into a struggle between shamed expediency and impulsive idealism, the marriage proves to be an illusory clearing in a nightmare forest from which the island has yet to find an exit.

To 23 Dec at the Bush, London W12 (081-743 3388)

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