Thursday, October 14, 2021

The Border Game – picking at the scabs of a breakup and a border that scars the land (Lyric Theatre until Saturday 23 October) #BIAF21

The Border Game is the latest play by the exciting writing team of Michael Patrick and Oisín Kearney whose script The Alternative won Fishamble’s A Play for Ireland competition. On stage in the Lyric this time two years ago, their Home Rule counterfactual examined the power of the media to shape the theatre of politics, and the power of politicians to mix facts with belief to stir up irrational emotion.

This time the two playwrights have turned their creativity to tackle a more intimate matter: picking at the scabs of a breakup. The action is placed at the scene of another fault line, the border that scars the island of Ireland. The parallels are both obvious and intense in a play that was commissioned to coincide with the centenary of partition and the creation of Northern Ireland.

An old Customs hut now lies derelict on farmland that straddles the border. Once the scene of cross-community rutting by a farmer’s daughter and the son of the local grocery store, it’s now where local youths come to party, and where hungover Henry (Patrick McBrearty) spent the night to clear his head. When he wakes up he finds old flame Sinead (Liz FitzGibbon) clearing up the mess from the partying trespassers.

Ciaran Bagnall’s set – like a cut down version of Lally the Scut – has an autumnal grassy mound falling down to the fenced border line and the dilapidated hut.

Emma Jordan keeps the two-handed play moving by allowing the characters to work – tidying up the land and mending a broken fence (and sorting through their own baggage and healing a personal rift) – while they banter and bicker. Though if acting work dries up, neither are ready to switch career to fencing without considerable retraining!

During the first half, Henry and Sinead unearth aspects of their past that had gone unsaid until this unplanned conversation. The interval cliff hanger – the blurting out of a huge hurt – certainly ups the feeling of jeopardy, though the scene that follows once the lights go back down feels very abrupt change of gear, despite being the most powerful moment in the play.

There’s a good sprinkling of magic realism and fantasy in the storytelling that gives director Jordan scope to add colour and changes of pace. Whilst unpacking bagfuls of transgenerational trauma, Kearney and Patrick aren’t afraid to play for audience laughs and light relief with a rabbit hole full of mystery and a series of gameshow skits from their youth that Sinead and Henry readily lapse into.

Great on-stage chemistry between McBrearty and FitzGibbon allows the jagged emotional link that binds the pair’s past and present together to be explored in constant tension. Both actors slip effortlessly in and out of a myriad of characters from their past, usually replete with comedy accents and distinctive mannerisms. They sing, they disco dance, and FitzGibbon’s no-nonsense Sinead has the full measure of her old northern Protestant boyfriend and never lets him overpower her intellectually, emotionally or physically.

Through tales of smuggling, distrust, brutality, loss and enduring pain, Patrick and Kearney get to the heart of why the border is a political act, and why it’s a high stakes game to tamper with the fragile status quo that has allowed rootless moss to cover over the cracks.

The Border Game is a coproduction between Prime Cut and the Lyric Theatre. Performances continue until Saturday 23 October as part of Belfast International Arts Festival

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