This Piece of Earth

Richard Dormer. Original poetry & Irish translation [and voice over] by Robert Welch
Ransom Productions
Old Museum Arts Centre, Belfast, and touring
(2007)

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Diego Pitarch's setting for This Piece of Earth, actor-author Richard Dormer's new play for his own Ransom Productions company, sends out echoes of both an Andy Goldsworthy rock and wood earth sculpture and the company's first and groundbreaking work, Hurricane, the hit bio-drama based on the risk-taking career of Belfast-born snooker star Alex "Hurricane" Higgins.

For where Hurricane's set was a circle suggesting the close confines of the Crucible's snooker arena, here Diego proffers up a perfect pagan ring of stones encompassing the tossed boulders of a Giant's Grave familiar to Ireland's hill-walkers, its mystic intention somewhat diminished by the scatterings of chipped bark from a local garden centre.

So we know, immediately from the off, that we are in another Huis Clos and thus that Maeve and John, the starving couple hoping to flee the ravages of Ireland's Great Famine, will never make it to the ship that might take them to America. Thus while we sympathise with their pain and empathise with their efforts to make it to the shore where the pocket watch given to them at a Quaker soup-kitchen might bribe them passage, we know they'll never make it.

Since Hurricane, Ulster's audiences have been rooting for Ransom's heady combination of Richard's passion as a writer and his physicality as an actor under the literary guidance of his father-in-law Prof Robert Welch and the spirited directoral choreography of his wife Rachel O'Riordan, an alumna of the Peter Hall process.

But here, those powerful and excellent actors Lalor Roddy and Pauline Goldsmith, playing John the village schoolmaster-poet and his peasant wife Maeve, have literally, nowhere to go. So Rachel's choreography is muted almost to the near static of clutching and falling. The arrival on stage of Dormer himself, as a wild-eyed priest in curiously well-polished boots midst the mud of the bog, forecasting retribution on perfidious Albion in centuries to come, fell flatter that the company must have wished.

Inevitably, Beckett springs, distractingly, to mind while costuming and makeup, which should surely have been as distressing as in Goya's Horrors of War, owe more to fanciful antiquarian prints of the period.

The text, perhaps over-researched, has moments of charming wit in the intimacies of a married couple. Bold too, and soul-stiring, are the stark references to cannibalism and the ethics of abandoning the weak to save the strong. But the device of conducting parts of the dialogue simultaneously in both English and Irish has too many distracting resonances with Brian Friel's play Translations.

And then there is the storyline. It comes complete, as in an old-fashioned short story, with a brace of "twists" but, as in many such stories, these twists were far from unexpected.

Yet, despite these reservations, this reviewer would be loth to dissuade a theatregoing public from sampling This Piece of Earth. This may not be Ransom's greatest moment, but they remain a company to be reckoned with.

At the Old Museum Arts Centre, Belfast till 28th April, and then touring to The Craic, Coalisland, 4th May; Down Arts Centre, Downpatrick 5th May; Island Arts Centre, Lisburn, 9th May; Market Place Theatre, Armagh city, 10th May; Ardhowen Theatre, Enniskillen, 11th May; The Playhouse, Londonderry, 12th May; Belltable Arts Centre, Limerick, 15th & 18th May; Town Hall Theatre, Galway city, 17th & 19th May

By coincidence the BTG's Allison Vale was in Belfast when this play was premiered and produced her own review which we reproduce below.

Richard Dormer's new play is a heart-breaking love story. It's a breath-taking, fifty-one minute exploration of what he calls, 'the redemptive power of love'. It is a compelling study of a married couple's struggle to survive in the face of extreme adversity. And it's a bleak, stark world.

The text is Beckett-esque, beautiful and poetic, interspersing English with Irish, marking Dormer out as one of our most exciting playwrights.

Director Rachel O' Riordan gives the piece its backbone; with subtle direction, she gives the piece a strength and grace. She excels at creating strong physical characterisations, moulding the actors into subtle but striking shapes; blurring the boundaries of realism without ever sacrificing the play's reality.

Within the confines of Diego Pitarch's perfect set (a simple circle of moist earth and stone), it becomes instantly clear that Maeve (played by Pauline Goldsmith) and her husband John (Lalor Roddy) are literally trapped. They are encircled within what will inevitably become their final resting place. But you come to care about these two: just as John urges his wife, you will them to "Get up", to fight on, however much you know that it is hopeless.

Against the play's historical backdrop of the Great Famine, the fates of John and Maeve are inevitable, and so the play is also a plea, a memorial.

John and Maeve face an impossible foe: the potato blight. They are representative of the thousands of human lives lost in Ireland as a result of the Great Famine. They have been urged by their parish priest (played by the writer, Richard Dormer), to leave the village, near the north coast of Ireland, and get themselves and Maeve's unborn child, to the port. They dream of the meal and the rest they will have on board the ship to America, which one quickly senses they will never reach.

Lalor Roddy is unforgettable as John. The Old Museum Arts Centre is an intimate space, where the front rows of the audience sit close enough to feel the breath of the actors. With absolute concentration and utter conviction, Roddy portrays a man staring death in the face and fighting with all he has to save the woman, and the soul of the country, he loves. Roddy gives John a physical strength with which he urges Maeve on, drags her to her feet and orders her to breathe.

Ultimately, it becomes clear that his efforts are futile, and a strength of the text is that here there is a gentle shift in focus. Steadily, Maeve takes over as the powerful partner, convincing John that it's okay to accept death now. She shows him that strength isn't just about getting up and fighting to live, but that it also lies in holding still to the piece of earth upon which they are waiting to die: "Be the man I married". In all this, Pauline Goldsmith lends Maeve a purity and an integrity which intensifies the tragedy.

The couple's intermittent exchanges in Irish create a heightened intimacy. For this non-Irish speaking member of the audience, the soft, lilting beauty of the Irish exchanges deepen the sense that we are being granted permission to look in on an intensely private moment in the lives of these two people. This is made all the more poignant in John's poem to his wife (a haunting piece, beautifully written for the play by Robert Welch), uttered in Irish and English.

The priest is the crux of the piece. He enters an almost broken man: like a captain aboard a sinking ship, he has determined to remain in his village until he is the last man standing. Now all are dead. All his hopes are that John and Maeve will carry the spirit of the village on and across the ocean to America. His outrage that this will not be so reflects the outrage of us all in the face of vast human tragedy and suffering. It says what the audience need it to say: that human suffering, like the Irish Famine, like any famine, is a moral outrage. As Dormer towers over the dying couple, his anger at the English 'tyrant' is not a nationalistic war cry, but a historical representation of the reaction of many to all that had gone before, and an apocalyptic prediction of the mayhem that it was to trigger.

To omit the role the Famine played in the troubled century-and-a-half which followed, would have left this drama unfinished and undermined its historical authenticity.

But for all that, this is not a political piece. Instead, it achieves that most elusive of ends: to humanise large-scale suffering; to make real the private stories of the many thousands who have fallen victim to famine, in Ireland and worldwide. This is a human story; a love story; but crucially, it is an act of remembrance too.

As Dormer writes in the programme, "If a country is to have a future, it must not forget its past".

Reviewer: Ian Hill