How to Bury a Dead Mule

Richard Clements
Lyric Theatre, Belfast
Lyric Theatre, Belfast

Poster image for Richard Clements' How to Bury a Dead Mule Credit: Lyric Theatre, Belfast
Richard Clements in How to Bury a Dead Mule Credit: Neil Harrison
Richard Clements in How to Bury a Dead Mule Credit: Neil Harrison
Richard Clements in How to Bury a Dead Mule Credit: Neil Harrison

If war is hell, its aftermath can be just as horrendous, as Richard Clements’s How to Bury a Dead Mule at the Lyric Belfast’s Naughton Studio pointedly, poignantly illustrates.

Clements also takes to the stage for this one-hander based on the experiences of his grandfather in combat during the brutal North African and Italian campaigns of the Second World War, and the devastating psychological and emotional wounds that he carried into peacetime.

A longer play truer to its instincts is waiting to be teased out of this compact study of one man’s struggle to reclaim a life irreparably scarred by inhumane horror, slaughter and the guilt of surviving when so many others didn’t. But Clements packs a lot, too much, into an hour’s playing time that can’t do full justice to his multi-layered, nine decade-spanning portrait, complete with a potted treatise on the developing awareness over 24 centuries of post-traumatic stress disorder from Herodotus to the Vietnam War and beyond.

There is no arguing with the sincere conviction of Clements’s deeply personal script, nor any fault with his committed, moving and dexterous performance, save that the production—augmented by back-projected archive images and footage—gives it and him scant room to breathe. Fresh from success with his mother’s boisterous Stones in His Pockets, director Matthew McElhinney takes things at such an accelerated lick that telling episodes and revealing insights risk being missed, the headlong pace distracting from and diluting the play’s and Clements’s performance’s impact.

Early technical faults with Eoin Robinson’s video images—produced in collaboration with NI Screen’s Digital Film Archive, the Northern Ireland War Memorial Museum and London’s Imperial War Museum—robbed Clements of useful visual context. What was seen was washed out by Mary Tumelty’s otherwise atmospheric lighting—a narrow, floor-focused, halo-like follow-spot a clever evoking of Clements’s wooed, then deserted during war, and subsequently distanced in peacetime, wife.

Adam Booth’s blanketing sound design, a collage of period songs and radio broadcasts, sentimental piano and assorted effects, provided its own telling commentary, even if its loud, demanding insistence (matching McElhinney’s driving pace) occasionally masked a heartfelt performance by Clements that ardently carries the evening.

With an extended playing time providing headroom to create a less agitated production and a more nuanced evening that allows space and necessary quiet for Clements’s script and performance, How to Bury a Dead Mule could well be a very fine play indeed.

Reviewer: Michael Quinn