They haven't gone away, you know. But what becomes of a decommissioned IRA member, put verifiably beyond use? Retired from service, afraid of local hoods, and dividing his time between counselling, medication and reconciliation exercises, the first figure we encounter in Jimmy McAleavey's new play for the Abbey is a cadaverous and haunted soul.
Described in the text, tellingly, as "a spare man", Nig is played by Lalor Roddy as a thin, jittery and caustic wraith, wrapped in a duvet like a hunger striker, a man who knows he is now surplus to requirements. He is joined by Wee Joe, a former nervy bomb-maker, to whom David Pearse bestows an eerie calm.
He claims to have found a more effective cure for PTSD than Valium: in short, a return to paramilitary activity under an unconfirmed banner. “It’s only if they’re pointless,” he says of the murders that haunt them and their psychological toll. The banality of the Peace Process provides little exorcism for men stepped so far in blood.
McAleavey's Abbey debut is thus positioned between a psychodrama and a dark satire – which, from David Ireland to Abbie Spallen, may now be the default mode of post-Troubles theatre. "See the Troubles, they must have been a fucking laugh," chirrups the excellent Ryan McParland as L, a young livewire mixing explosives for Wee Joe's paranoid new unit. It's revealingly glib. The concrete borders of Maree Kearns 's economic set evoke memories of Long Kesh, while McAleavey's pithy comedy conveys an equally imprisoning mindset, but what does the iconography of The Troubles mean to a new, disaffected generation?
McAleavey depicts a continuity of emasculation: an epidemic of male suicides, the humiliation of an IRA “penetrated” by intelligence, or Steve Blount’s wary head of covert operations, Big Tommy (who first appears like Nig’s paranoid delusion), later revealed in busy domestic tasks. With the goofy appearance of a blow-up sex doll – gleefully dubbed “Cathleen Ni Silicone” – the play seems to confirm itself as a blinkered boy’s club, engaged solely in deflating these action men.
That action is really a McGuffin: Wee Joe’s mission – to detonate a device outside a kids’ TV talent show – and the conspiracy behind it are the stuff of a more loopy farce. Director Catriona McLoughlin recognises more persuasive detail in what it allows, though: evocative and scarred reminiscences, Pearse’s spry performance of mid-life obsessiveness – he even calculates the health benefits of evading surveillance: “About 1500 calories” – and, in the play’s most affecting exchange, Roddy trading a revealing joke from another era for McParland’s sobering, contemporary story.
The retired soldiers may mock the half-life of the Troubles – the “core negative beliefs” and “bridge-building” – but although he might have broadened the range of voices, McAleavey’s play does keep them talking. It presents itself, in one sense, as an explosive drama. But as with peace, it’s the dialogue that matters. Until June 27th