Snake Eaters review: A soldier’s story gets lost in cliche

Among the three or so plays struggling to get out, an interesting human story is lost

Snake Eaters

New Theatre, Dublin


Hillis, a US soldier returning from Afghanistan, has seen more than his share of calamity. Played by Patrick O’Donnell as the strong, silent type with post-traumatic stress disorder, Hillis is understandably having difficulty in adapting to normal life back in Nebraska.


He is slow to confide in his gentle father (Pat Nolan), in his slacker friend Joey (Cillian Roche) or even in the no-nonsense woman (Lesley Conroy) he takes a shine to. One reason for Hillis’s uncertainty is that the terrain keeps shifting beneath his feet, from battleground to normality. Another, in Stewart Roche’s new play, is that so does the genre.

Steeped in a specific brand of all-American naturalism – a studied effort for an Irish production – the play begins overladen with detail, discussing discontinued breakfast cereals and such anachronistic details as Ella Fitzgerald, reading the New York Times in print or a bought-out bookstore. It seems for a while that Hillis's story will be a similar study in obsolescence: a decommissioned warrior who discovers that the present has no place for him.

But the play shifts gears frequently, determined to move Hillis from broody male to solid action hero, a guy who wisecracks fluently with Conroy's nicely played Ashley, talks (and acts) tough to her lowlife drug-dealer boyfriend (John Morton), saves the girl and stands up for his pal who is in deep debt to a cadre of baddies. This requires abrupt identity shifts, moving the play from unspoken war traumas to a clanging series of adventure tropes, as though The Hurt Locker had somehow been spliced into an episode of The A-Team.

Emotional crises (such as a subplot about an abandoned fiancee) are glibly resolved in favour of plot contrivances that come off as plain silly. “You do that, and we don’t have any problems,” Ashley says when Hillis agrees to confront his demons.

“Apart from a drug dealer called Kruger . . . ” he replies. At least they recognise the absurdity.

It all resolves, unsatisfyingly, into a macho fantasy, crowded with additional characters, in which military brotherhood can outwit, outmanoeuvre and outgun a cartoonish villain (Roche again). It’s a shame, because among the three or so plays struggling to get out of director Caroline Fitzgerald’s production, there’s an interesting human story lost in a minefield of cliches.

  • Until December 19th
Peter Crawley

Peter Crawley

Peter Crawley, a contributor to The Irish Times, writes about theatre, television and other aspects of culture