Liam Carney as Gerry Newman in Homeland
Maybe because the country is small Irish writers very often have a highly self-conscious relationship with it. They feel intimately bound up with the life of the state and feel it incumbent upon them to record its psycho-geography, its socio-economic shifts, its daily preoccupations – almost, at times, as if the imagination were an extension of the chat show, capable of absorbing and rapidly processing the urgent issues of the day and relating these to to how the nation sees itself, how its perception of itself might have altered, how far the nation has fallen from idealised visions of itself. . .Writers everywhere take their subjects where they find them, but somehow it works differently here; writers sometimes seem to be writing to an expectation that they be in some way representative, that their work should be a kind of ongoing Prime Time earnestly investigating the eternal state of chassis of the national soul. I was thinking this the other night as I watched Paul Mercier’s new play, Homeland, in the Abbey.
The play is advertised as a play about money, the search for home,‘a fable of modern times . . . a sweeping tale of wheeling, dealing and urban mythmaking based on the legend of Oisín and Tír na nÓg’. Everything is there: crooked property deals, drugs, immigration, prostitution, abuse, religion, the subjects seeming to multiply exponentially as the play continues. And everything happens in a hurry; the play is a fast car driven through contemporary Ireland, or Irish Times-land, Joe Duffy-land, Marian-Finucane land. The play is a succession of rapidly shifting scenes, all of them acted at the speed limit, new characters introduced and dismissed as the large cast multi-tasks, the situations and events piling up until we struggle to remember what’s at issue in this particular scene. And underneath it all, like a spluttery engine, runs the compulsory Irish myth: in this case Oisín and Tír na nÓg. In case we miss any of the parallels, or in case we haven’t looked into Agallamh na Seanórach recently, the programme serves us an eloquent essay on the subject by Irish scholar Angela Bourke.
Oisín’s father was Fionn Mac Cumhaill, and a persistent tradition. . . says that his mother was a deer. . .Outside culture from birth, but immersed in nature; partaking in animal life yet all, or almost all, human, Oisín has much in common with the heroes of other traditions: Romulus and Remus, for instance, or Oedipus. But the stories of the Fianna are unique to Gaelic tradition, and Oisín himself has been involved again and again by artists contemplating change in these regions on the edge of Europe.
So as the economy loses the run of itself, as the pockets of the venal bulge, as the service sector offers the skinny embrace of the minimum wage to the Gastarbeiter of the Tiger, as the drugs flow and the litanies of the evils prosperity are composed by the tabloid thinkers of the day, we reach for the bony hands of the Fianna, that we may know ourselves. And Oisín in 2006 is Gerry Newman, communications whizz-kid, greaser of developer’s palms, now disgraced. He’s back in Dublin for a mysterious crucial meeting in the airport, but things go wrong and he’s propelled into the under life of the city where he meets various dubious characters and is robbed by junkie prostitute Niamh in her blonde wig (Niamh Chinn Óir, Niamh of the Golden Hair). He sees the bleak housing estates for which he was partly responsible, witnesses poverty, lives ruined by drugs, murder and other mayhem in a ‘thrilling white-knuckle ride into a world forged but forgotten by the Celtic Tiger.’
The language in which all this takes place is a mix of cod myth-speak, cod communicationese, cod evangelical salvationese, and the style of the production is broadly comic, a hectic ensemble grand guignol romp. It would be daft to look for any conclusions from what is a satire of the broadest stroke, but the problem with this style of theatre is that it, for all the rich theatricality, it can seem somewhat content-poor. Stuff happens, then more stuff happens. The variety of linguistic registers, the speed of the playing, the constant multiplication of the targets, means that nothing much really can be resolved: this style doesn’t do resolution. Or engagement, beyond a kind of distanced, amused engagement as the audience marvels at the technical slickness, the timing and so on. After ninety minutes without an interval, there’s a conclusion of kinds, but by that time Oisín/Newman has begun to outstay his welcome and in spite of all the transformations he undergoes is exactly the same character (and, miraculously, not a day older) in the last minute as he was in the first. What worked for, say, Native City, doesn’t work here because the subject, if you take it on – if you first of all distil a subject from the pile of preoccupations – demands some kind of polemical engagement.
In a sense the style insulates the production from the kind of impatience I seem to be showing here. But if you take on the foibles of the Celtic Tiger (I promise never to utter this wretched phrase again), you pretty much have to end up saying something about it. Otherwise you’re left with a set of theatrical snatches, play-bites, a kind of turbo charged David McWilliams (who, indeed, features in a talk ‘about The Grown Ups and the new Irish middle class.’ in the Peacock in February). And maybe this is the intention, a quick take on the obvious manifestations of the new economy (there’s a running gag about immigrants in the workforce complete with funny voices which was getting to be a serious annoyance), a theatrical addition to the running commentary on ourselves that fills the airwaves and the papers. Maybe that's why, next Thursday (26 January, 6.30pm – 7.15pm) broadcaster and journalist Damien Kiberd responds to Homeland. You can go to that, or avoid the economics and go to the post show discussion on Wednesday 1 February.