Sunday, May 13, 2018

The Sword and the Sand – dark, funny and very shocking (Rawlife Theatre in the Lyric until 27 May)

xxx The Sword and the Sand revolves around Duff, an OCD gang leader who remains at the helm of an unnamed paramilitary ‘Organisation’. A power-crazed despot who insists that everyone around him remains loyal and obeys his commands, he’s post-republican, no longer believing in any 32 county cause. He gets his kicks out of torturing local drug dealers and has a real thing for needles. Getting his muscles the same way he tans his skin, through injections, is perhaps a hint at his wider belief that there’s no need to put in too much effort to achieve what he wants.

Marty Maguire plays the orange-faced evil Popeye figure with bulging biceps, shooting off jokes that attract laughs, yet have a sharp edge that always hurts someone. There’s a consistency to Maguire’s portrayal that makes the menace troublingly believable.

A series of characters circle round Duff, questioning his motives as well as their own reasons for participating in his scheme, but unable to break free from orbit. There’s his protégé Cricky (Gerard Jordan Quinn) who is well read and can tell the difference between the Taliban, al-Qaeda and ISIS, yet can also handle an ugly crowd intent on revenge.

A refugee who lost family and has witnessed persecution and violence is given shelter by Duff. Perhaps in Azir (Mark Asante) he recognises a kindred spirit, perhaps someone with experience of the trauma he metes out on the streets of Belfast? Or maybe he decided to select a suitably vulnerable man to be his next slave, cooking meals and working behind the bar while receiving next to no recompense.

Bernadette Brown plays Lala, a young woman who trades bringing pleasure to a man twice her age for … what barely passes as friendship. Taught to stay well away from his less sensual activities, she’s smarter than Duff realises and when she brings a family situation to his attention he can’t help but act on the information to further his criminal purposes.

Playwright Pearse Elliott sets these characters on a downward spiral, exploring how the monster’s cohorts begin to push back against the devilish Duff with independent thinking. The language is strong, the opinions often politically incorrect and director Martin McSharry keeps the atmosphere thick with menace and violence.

The beauty of the script is the way in which each character surprises Duff by attempting to stand up to him. Brown, Quinn and particularly Asante bring out hidden depths to their characters and carefully walk the fine line between being victims and collaborators. Paddy Jenkins emerges on stage after the interval. The brevity of his scene is inversely proportional to the effort he puts into the intense performance and his character’s valiant fight against the wit of Duff.

At one level, The Sword and the Sand is a reality check about some modern day pseudo-paramilitary activity, steeped in criminality and distant from any original cause. Yet it’s also a reminder that while our own ‘Troubles’ were brutal and bloody, they barely compare to some other places of conflict around the world. It’s also an object lesson on dealing with the consequences of poor decisions, and waiting too long to stand up for your principles.

It’s a fabulously dark, at times funny, and often shocking play that speaks loudly into Northern Ireland’s situation as well as global issues. The Sword and the Sand continues its run in the Lyric Theatre until 27 May.

Photo credit: Johnny Frazer

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