Saturday, May 21, 2016

As The Tide Ebbs - seeking truth amongst the post-Troubles squalor (Rawlife Theatre at the Lyric until 5 June)

Pearse Elliott’s new play As The Tide Ebbs explores the life of a couple of ex-combatants and a younger man seeking the truth about his family.
“This place is my home. It might be a shit hole but it’s where I live … where I was brought up …”

Fuzzy (played brilliantly by Billy Clarke) lives in the wreck of his family home. He holds a bottle in one hand a rubs his face compulsively with the other. Nothing in this excuse for a domicile works except the multiple fridges used to keep the alcohol chilled, an unnecessary precaution given the lack of heating in the dingy squat. His speech is slurred and his logic is as pickled as his alcohol-infused, drug-addled brain. But these vices disguise the baggage he carries from the conflict.

Friends from the old days call in to while away the day. Shasu (Marty Maguire) carried out a lot more “jobs”. He and Fuzzy reminisce about old war stories over a ‘gargle’ or two. The language is colourful and, as we’ve come to expect from Pearse Elliott, there are west Belfastisms aplenty to spice up the dialogue.

After twenty minutes, the younger Wishy (Michael Liebmann) joins the pair. He brings curiosity along with clinking blue bags of comfort into the house. There’s a normalcy to killing “the enemy”. Conversation about murder intertwines with notions of home improvement and women. It’s not just another topic: it’s also the topic that most burdens their lives.

Even with an hour of acting before the interval, it’s well through the second half before the big reveal and the Fuzzy and Shasu face up to their past. The characters – particularly Fuzzy – are satisfying to watch, but there’s definitely room to prune the text (and remove some of the repetitions) as well as inject more variation of emotion into the play. Although the tension in the audience rises when the threat of violence enters the house, our fears are betrayed when the play’s conclusion is reached. The final scene is fitting and well staged. However, the run up to it leaves us unsated.

The audience sit along the front and side of the stage in the Lyric’s Naughton Studio. Don’t be scared: the best seats are at the side, very close to much of the action director Martin McSharry has engineered. Niall Rea’s fabulous set sprawls over the confines of the usually cramped Naughton Studio stage. While fictional, there’s more than a whiff of fact about As The Tide Ebbs with the house and some of the characters and situations obviously familiar to some in the audience.

Your political and cultural background will somewhat determine how you appreciate the play. Themes of touts, the Disappeared, the Hooded Men and the yearning for truth recovery float to the surface. There are moments of laughter – and loud snorts from some in the stalls – among the banter. But it’s noticeable that different sections of the audience laugh at different jokes. Writing and directing so close to the bone dampens many of the collegiate giggles a play like this would often expect to earn.

In 2015, every play in Belfast seemed to use a projector. (As The Tide Ebbs plays an extended video at the start of both acts that is projected across the set, the imagery indiscernible and the context lost on this reviewer.) This year theatre involves lots of opening bottles and drinking and singing. The on-stage threesome prove that they have strong bladders and good voices, with a particularly tuneful rendition of a Dylan song. Though the lyric at the close of the show is perhaps most apt:
“It makes no difference how far I go / Like a scar the hurt will always show”
As The Tide Ebbs is unrelentingly masculine. The dark post-Troubles play is at times more tragedy than comedy, but it succeeds in shining a light on a cadre of activists who society leaves in the company of their consciences while surviving family members still crave for closure on the fate of their loved ones.

Rawclife Theatre’s As The Tide Ebbs runs in the Lyric Theatre until 6 June.

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