Silent questions


IN RECENT years, we have become used to the idea that you can say more or less anything you like in Irish theatre, or indeed in Irish culture generally. The idea is not untrue, but it does need qualification. It is not accidental, for instance, that Father Ted, though written and performed by Irish people and set in Ireland, is a British television production. And neither is it insignificant that Dermot Bolger's most recent play, Baby Jean, has just finished a run at the Battersea Arts Centre in London, but has not been produced here. In neither case is it a matter of censorship, but in both, surely, there is a kind of passive discomfort in Irish culture that still affects what does and does not gets produced here.

In the case of Baby Jean, a play that relates in indirect but obvious ways to the infamous X case, an earlier version was submitted to the Abbey. At the time, criminal charges in the case were still pending, and there was legal advice to the effect that a production might tend to prejudice the trial. It is rather remarkable, nevertheless, that a play so clearly rooted in contemporary Irish events has had its world premiere in London, albeit as part of BAC Irish festival, and under the banner of the London Irish group Lucid Productions. And it is even more remarkable that the play, itself suggests just how difficult it is for Irish culture to find a language and a form for much of contemporary Irish experience.

Baby Jean is clearly not an attempt to put the ix case on stage. It is far - if anything, too far from the extraordinary confusion of public and, private, of the intimate and open, in those awful events. It is set very deliberately after the right to travel amendment, has been enacted, so the directly political dimension of the original story is avoided. The epic drama of the case - the people's words in the anti abortion amendment coming back to haunt them, the dilemma of a system forced to take symbolic statements literally is absent.

Its focus, rather, is entirely on a private entanglement a middle aged mother (Bernadette Shortt), her husband (Christopher Dunne), and their neighbour and longstanding friend (John Gunnery) who has made their 15 year old daughter pregnant. The girl herself does not appear on stage and the concern is largely with the lives of the adults - with ageing, disappointment, the cruel hold of past relationships on the present.

Insofar as it has a public political dimension at all it is in its testing of the dreams, of the upwardly mobile 1960s against the realities of the 1990s. All three characters are still in some ways locked into their younger selves, unable to cope with what, as respectable middle class Dubliners and senior civil servants, they have become.

This is, in Bolger's work, both familiar and fertile ground, and the play is often compelling as an unflinching excavation of difficult psychic terrain. But because it does draw from the X case and from the great well of emotions and confusions in which it was sunk, it also raises questions about the continued silence within Irish culture about some of those emotions. Baby Jean is not by any means a cop out. It is brave and unflinching - in its treatment of male sexual it and it looks into dirty corners with a steady gaze. But by leaving out the politics of the story, it also leases a vacuum into which the attention of the viewer is often drawn.

One of the things the attention is drawn to is the dominance of the male voice itself. Because Baby Jean herself is absent, and her mother is, mostly at an angle to the main action, the centre of gravity remains with the men, whose lives, even in a tone of damning critique, are more interestingly present. The other is that both sexual abuse and abortion need to be confronted in Irish culture, and that confrontation doesn't happen here.

It is fair enough to say that the play isn't really about rape and abortion. But it is also fair enough to ask why not? Once you put on stage two ordinary middle class parents preparing to take their child to London for an abortion, you raise from the collective memory certain spectres. In Baby Jean, they remain just that - ghostly images whose presence is felt but never confronted.

Part of the fascination of the play is that this question is not extraneous but is actually raised by problems of form within the piece itself. At times, it uses a harsh in your face style of documentary realism appropriate to a television drama on a recent event. But its deeper impulse is towards something quite different, a more stylised language, a deeper spiritual search, a more probing psychic exploration.

This split personality is embodied in a split stage. In one playing area, the bedroom, the style is mostly monologue as the mother replays, the events in her relationship with her daughter that have led up to this crisis. In the other, the sitting room, where the husband and the rapist lock horns the style is, all naturalistic dialogue. It takes direction of the highest quality to make a successful piece of theatre out of competing, even contradictory, dramatic conventions, and in a more confident production than Jim O'Hanlon's, which was rather stilted and emotionally undisciplined, this shifting of style might seem less incoherent.

Even so, this one suggested the genuine difficulty of finding forms for recent Irish experience. On the one hand, documentary realism could never do justice to the surreal, nightmarish quality of sexual politics here in the last decade. On the other, abstract language and stylised action risk obscuring, the sheer awfulness of the realities.