Wednesday, 11 December 2013


The story of a love triangle set in the Siege Of Derry illustrates the damaging effects of isolation

A jailed cobbler, down on his luck. A spoiled aristocrat, with seemingly all he ever wanted. Two characters, at opposite ends of the class spectrum, but who desire one and the same, are portrayed by one and the same... and, in nearly every way, are one and the same, although they would almost certainly deny it.

They are the centrepiece of Sea Lavender, a one-man, two act play written and directed by Derry-Londonderry born Andy Hinds. The title of the production, set during the Siege Of Derry, is a vague metaphor, a mere thread in a compelling, convincing illustration of the dangers of isolation and individualism, and how they can warp one’s mind beyond belief.

Deep down, one may be the caring, giving person that they perceive themselves to be, but, as Christopher Nolan of all people once wrote, it's not who we are inside, but what we do that defines us. Excessive seclusion can drive one into a gamut of unforgivably painful emotions, among them, fear, anger, dismay, hate, scapegoating, over idealism and insanity. All of which conspire to transform and destroy the two characters in the play in front of our very eyes.

The first act introduces us to young Protestant cobbler Arthur, played by acclaimed actor Stephen Hagan. After trying and failing to gain entry into the besieged City Of Derry, he lies in prison, awaiting execution. He clings to the hope provided by both a fragmented patchwork of memories and documentation from aristocratic Captain Harry Thompson, also a Protestant, who has promised to work for his release.

The faint promise in these long winded, erudite letters is contrasted with Arthur's memories of "the sweet smell of (sea) lavender", his "Irish papist" wife and child, and, most importantly for him, his gay love affair with the unseen Peter. It is a lot to take in, but Hagan's conviction and Hinds' steady direction keeps the production on an even keel.

We realise that being trapped in a cell for a period of time has, as Red from The Shawshank Redemption would put it, partly "institutionalised" Arthur. The audience watches as he grapples with his inner soul and a consistently changing point of view, creating an Arthur that is not necessarily who he really is, but a self-involved image that inflates his pride and blinds him to his own faults.

With only a shadow to speak to, which, tellingly, draws attention to itself through brief bursts of light, Arthur's perception of both himself and everyone around him is irreparably distorted. Little wonder, now, that David Tennant was originally in line to play this role; his most famous alter-ego is cursed by loneliness, the price a Time Lord must pay for a do-gooding existence.

As the first act ploughs on, Arthur's continuously revised recollections of Peter shove him further and further into a pitiable hole. He is bitter that he has not been released, and that he probably won't be. He is hurt that when he hugged his wife, all he saw was Peter. He scapegoats intensely ("It wasn’t me that betrayed you, it was those booming voices in my head!") prior to a sudden and imbalanced shift into historical territory. It is the play’s lone weakness – Hagan's sorrowful enunciation about the Siege does not pack anywhere near the same punch as his more personal soliloquies. However, one never forgets the wear and tear on Hagan's extremely expressive face, especially when it is revealed that Arthur's aristocratic "saviour", Harry, also has feelings for Peter.

The second act, set in the confines of a rich man's house, is spent in the sole company of Harry, also played by Hagan. Contrary to Arthur, Harry appears smug, and has a big capitalist dream, the building of a linen empire. But he is no less bitter, albeit initially about more trivial issues such as "no apple sauce on (his) roast pork dinner". Like Arthur, isolationism has driven Harry to breaking point, alcoholism and anger stemming both from extreme love and hate.

In the guise of Harry, Hagan's elocution is stronger and truer than ever, projecting the emotions of an overgrown child who is not so spoiled after all, a man whose head is "a battlefield of warring dreams and battled legions". Weeping over his belief that Peter loved Arthur more than Harry, he feels that no amount of money can buy him an advantage in this love triangle, and resorts to blaming his twisted personality on an abusive childhood.

The historical connection, which has, until now, been rather tenuous, gains full relevance when Harry decides that he will become the father that his own father was not, by raising Arthur's child as his own. We know that our Protestant hero – if you can call him that – cannot raise a Catholic child, but he does not go down quietly in what is ultimately a heartbreaking finale.

Judging Sea Lavender solely by its metaphorical title and backdrop would be misjudgements in themselves, drawing us away from the tragic fate of Arthur and Harry respectively. Stephen Hagan and Andy Hinds have taken two characters and transformed them into fully realised human beings in minimalist surroundings. That is their, and Sea Lavender's, legacy. There is no applause from me when the lights dim for the last time; only the silence and awe that both Hagan and Hinds fully deserve.