Blackbird: A tense and riveting two-hander

Andrew Flynn’s production brings a stark moral clarity

In David Harrower’s tense and riveting two-hander Blackbird, the lines of empathy and compassion are being continuously redrawn. The play is set in the staff room of a manufacturing plant where Una (Maeve Fitzgerald) has arrived as the factory is emptying out for the evening. She has come to find Ray (Declan Conlon), a browbeaten bumbling low-level manager, who can barely hold her gaze.

“Shock” is the first word Una says to him, and the word reverberates throughout for the audience, as Harrower slowly unspools their shared history; when Una was 12 and Ray was 40 they had a sexual relationship. This fact is less shocking, however, than the way that Harrower plays with our expectations, as the power dynamics continually pivot during Una and Ray’s confrontation. Despite our understanding of the fundamental sex crime, Harrower’s sharp characterisations deny us any easy moral judgment. Against our instincts, he forces us to examine the complex humanity of the abuser, as well as the unpalatable legacy of abuse upon the personality of the victim. It is thrilling, thought-provoking material.

With long swinging arms and rounded shoulders, Fitzgerald brings a dangerous energy to the role of Una, stalking through the rubbish-strewn office canteen, designed by Owen MacCarthaigh, like a wild animal waiting to pounce on its prey. Conlon, meanwhile, is a diffident, timorous presence, hoisting up his loose trousers at the waist, fidgeting with his mobile phone. There are moments when they both let their emotional armour slip, and it is here where Harrower’s held-breath dramaturgy achieves its most chilling effect, as he moves to convince us that Blackbird is almost a love story.

This is not Andrew Flynn’s first production of Blackbird for Decadent Theatre – he directed the play in 2009 – and he brings an assured and confident touch to the real-time unfolding of the shocking scenario. Midway through the 80-minute piece, he allows a scripted moment of darkness and silence to hang for several minutes. This serves to interrupt what is beginning to seem like a reconciliation. For the audience it gives us an opportunity to step back and re-evaluate our shifting sympathies.

However, Flynn does not give us this luxury at the play’s end, when a brutal blackout and curtain call plunge us back to reality, where the moral lines are much more clear.

Blackbird, Gaiety Theatre, until May 28

Sara Keating

Sara Keating

Sara Keating, a contributor to The Irish Times, is an arts and features writer