Wednesday, 20 November 2013


Derry-Londonderry hosts a turbulent tale of two types of love conquering all... or trying to

British playwright Helen Edmundson penned The Clearing amidst the "horror" and "disbelief" in Europeans' expressions throughout the barbarism of the civil war in the former Yugoslavia. Her theory was that in similar circumstances, there was no way we absolutely could not be susceptible to the influence of propaganda or, in her words, "fall prey to the lust for revenge and absolute supremacy".

Edmunson, however, refuses to believe that the dream of a world where people "have their lives for themselves" is no more than a dream; and, inspired by the "phoenix from the flames" theme partly inherent in the inaugural City Of Culture year, Derry-Londonderry's Playhouse Theatre have re-commissioned The Clearing for a contemporary audience.

When the play opens, in 1652 Ireland, Cromwellian England is in the process of solving the "Irish Question" as only it thinks it can; by eradicating the entire population in a genocidal movement involving fighting, plagues and famine. By 1653, The Act Of Transplantation is in full force; the Irish Nationalists who have not been killed or shipped off to colonies in the Americas are set for Connacht, then the poorest and most inhospitable region in Ireland.

Not that young English Protestant Robert Preston (Kieran Griffiths) and his Irish wife Madeleine (Megan Armitage, in what is surely a star-making turn) are too perturbed by all of this; they and their baby son live happily in the Emerald Isle amongst friends from both sides of the religious divide. Those familiar with Joan Lingard’s literature will tie Robert and Madeleine's situation in with a seventeenth century Across The Barricades – a young couple overcoming, or trying to overcome, serious political and spiritual issues in a strange time where, as Robert puts it, people "aren't themselves" and "have forgotten how to smile".

Still, a smile seems fixed on the free-spirited Madeleine's glowing visage a lot of the time, especially when she is around the cynical Pierce (6Degrees' Seamus O'Hara) and her "spiritual sister", Killaine (Doireann McKenna). She has no hesitation in naming Killaine her child’s godmother, despite the troubled times, for "fine English ladies have their companions", and Killaine is her companion. That word will take on deeper meaning as The Clearing goes on.

For the play doesn't open in a spooky, Blair Witch-esque wood for no reason. When Robert realises that his friend Solomon (Peter Hudson) and Solomon’s outspoken wife Susaneh (a fiery Judith Burnett) have not been faithful to the Commonwealth, the cracks in our patriotic central character’s determinedly confident facade start to show. He is persuaded to be more careful by the bullish Governor Sturnam (the excellent Les Clark) and advised to focus on "the world" rather than "life and longing" in a country that "cannot be trusted". These fears do not transmit to Madeleine, however, raising the first of a number of major and timeless issues in the play – should one compromise on the things he or she truly believes in?

This shift in focus spreads to Susaneh, who no longer believes she can make friends in this mistrustful atmosphere. Hate turns her bitter, and she and Solomon, along with Pierce, Killaine and even Madeleine to an extent, become a metaphor – for animals, unsafe, in a clearing, in a wood. They are there to be discarded, or eaten away when the hierarchy has no use for them.

From building on this, the play becomes an entirely different beast in its second half. By the end of Act One, Pierce is reluctant to hold Madeleine's son as the baby is not of his blood, but by Act Two's end, he feels closer to Madeleine than ever, and she him. Why is this?

The capture of Killaine by British soldiers and the forced transplantation of Solomon and Susaneh virtually turns the production on its head. Madeleine's hitherto suppressed brotherly feelings for Pierce, and affection for Killaine, are now at the forefront along with Robert's true priorities. We wonder now if Madeleine truly loves Robert, or if she is in a marriage of convenience, for stability's sake.

Helen Edmunson, director Patricia Kessler, Kieran Griffiths and Megan Armitage deserve special praise for convincing us that this once apparently blissful union is really scarcely believable at its core. No matter how genuine Robert’s attachment to Madeleine is, his by-the-bookishness and her rebelliousness are always in danger of coming to blows in a politically charged atmosphere – which is precisely what happens in The Clearing, both in the play and the woods.

Armitage goes as far as threatening to turn the play into a one-woman show during Madeleine's ill-fated pursuit of Killaine. Her performance is equally humorous and heartbreaking, the highlight being a truly creepy dance in Sturnam’s office. In a rather bewitching manner, she convinces us that this obstructive bureaucrat might not really want to be all that obstructive after all. She is an "Irish" wife in every sense of the nationality – and don't Robert and the audience know it!

As with all Playhouse Productions, the minimalist sets give the well structured narrative and the whole ensemble room to thrive. And if The Clearing can at times be a little too broad in pronouncing its theses, it is the journey along the way, concluding with Robert and Madeleine’s final meeting of clarity, that matters. Perhaps, we find, many of our dreams may be realised after all, even if some gaps really are too great to be bridged.