Knowing when to start Digging

Rough Magic unearths a state-of-the-nation drama by Declan Hughes that could still dig deeper

‘Declan Hughes’s real achievement in Digging for Fire is  to observe his moment rather than predict the future’

‘Declan Hughes’s real achievement in Digging for Fire is to observe his moment rather than predict the future’


Digging For Fire
Project Arts Centre, Dublin

This is a tale of two reunions. In the first, a circle of college friends reconvene after 10 years to catch up, drink and fall apart. In the second, Rough Magic reassembles founder member Declan Hughes’s ground-breaking 1991 play and a vision of Ireland in transition. In both cases, the question is the same: w here are we now?

Entrusting the play to a new generation, such as director Matt Torney (albeit a Rough Magic alumnus), this revival seeks a certain critical distance to reappraise the play without nostalgia. But while Hughes’s characters acidly reject the “late 1960s fantasies” of a previous generation, just as his play – outward looking, urban and middle-class – rebelled against the insular shebeens and tenements of Irish theatre, this production seems to be applauding its elders. That’s touching but telling, as though the angry wheel of artistic revolution has stalled.

You have to be reminded how radical Digging for Fire once seemed, but only because the play and the company have been so influential. Stories of the city and porous national identity now feel quite familiar. Hughes is keen to name-check his own influences – from the Pixies to American Psycho – and Torney’s fluent production suggests others closer to home, from the argumentative thrust and drink-enabled catharsis of Tom Murphy, to the gnashing satire of Caryl Churchill.

Staged in the traverse, Ciaran Bagnall’s set nicely divides the audience in two for a drama of division and competing perspectives. The disappointed teacher Clare (an uncertain Orla Fitzgerald) and her nice-but-staid doctor husband Brendan (Will Irvine) might embody a nation at a crossroads, caught between struggle and security. Pointing one way are rapacious ad-man Steve (a viciously entertainingly Raymond Scannell) and his talk-radio producer partner Breda (a fascinatingly angular Jody O’Neill, on the knife-edge of parody), who reduce philosophies to marketing categories and language to buzzwords: “Mondo exotic intake situation, guys!”

Facing another direction (namely New York) are John Cronin’s compellingly-performed writer Danny, and Margaret McAuliffe’s sympathetic visual artist Emily, both plumbing for truth in lives that combine apparent success and personal calamities. Paul Mallon’s clear-sighted Rory stays right on the fence, preaching the liberation of chaos while being ready to bury these friendships.

Hughes artfully folds the personal into the political but he’s admirably aware of becoming glib: “You cheated on me because Fianna Fáil won the election?” Bagnall’s set and costumes avoid any reference too distractingly of its time (the fashion cycle is his ally) and the play only seems dated by its voguish overuse of “postmodernist” and a couple of plot twists made untenable by Google.

It’s tempting, then, to see this as a prophetic piece about prosperity, moral entropy and collapse. But Hughes’s real achievement was to observe his moment rather than predict the future. This is a fine and absorbing revival, one that might stimulate more enquiries into the “standard State of the Nation stuff”. We’re in a hole again; keep digging.
Runs until May 4th