Monday, 28 April 2014


The second of three theatrical retrospectives this week: a grimly humorous historical prison tale in an unforgiving, violent and paranoid setting

When we watch television, or see a movie, we don't usually expect our prison and war dramas to be totally grimy, spatial and unrepentantly ugly. We tend to prefer intimacy, matinee idol heroes, very well-developed themes and tight, clear narratives. Over The Wire - intentionally - has none of these things. It is inconsistently paced, tough on the eye, and its violence dangerously verges on exploitative. But, for all that, it is skin-crawlingly uncomfortable - and relentlessly interesting.

One's very first words when they walk into any theatre staging Over The Wire would surely be something like: "Oh, hell." Oh hell, yeah. The stage is set up to resemble a caged prison where barbed wire laces the top of the "walls". The play's opening shot sees two of the central characters lying under a pale, yellow, heavily pierced shelter, expecting the rain, or worse, to do its worst. The only washing water there is lies in bins laced with muck. This is Long Kesh jail in Belfast in 1974, at a time when much of the prison has been destroyed following a literally fiery riot. Multi-award winning writer Seamas Keenan has opened, and will continue widening, our eyes to this unforgiving world, a place where violence, paranoia and hunger heavily invade the hearts, minds and bodies of five prisoners behind the wires.

You can't really pigeonhole Over The Wire as a clichéd, lightweight "Great Divide" play with the difference between the two central factions - Republican prisoners on the inside, British soldiers on the outside - drawn in straight, brutal lines. The contrasts run deeper than that. Initially, we rely on spotlights, the barking of guard dogs and idle chitter chatter to paint the gap between the filthy, confused picture for the prisoners and the well-drilled precision of the guards. But when we realise just how tired the imprisoned men are of consistently tolerating such conditions, which come complete with routine marches and periodic beatings, the play's impact really hits home. These men have been driven to violence. They want to plan their own Great Escape. And it looks an impossibility.

The five Unusual Suspects - Dee (Gerry Doherty), Dutch (Andrew Doherty), Colin (Micheál McDaid), Barry (Martin Bradley) and Lucas (Pat Lynch) genuinely do not want to bond. They don't look like they trust each other, let alone the guards. But when the only outcome is bitter food, bitter drink and even more bitter spirits, what choice do they have? Cue sing-songs and rapid-fire jokes amidst heavy torture from the officers. It's as if John McBlain's Ceasefire Tapes were given a lesson in how to be funny then chucked into this prison.

Such varying moods can only lead to madness, and when one prisoner is briefly let out of the "cage" for a "real meal" of sausages, chips, peas and gravy - which, of course, he cannot possibly turn down - enmity naturally rises when he returns. So too does the violence, this time among the prisoners; especially Lucas, who turns downright creepy in a torturous bloodbath of a climax. Any sense of normality in this exceptionally designed, intimately acted, grimly humorous production is now wholly out the window, leaving the audience shocked to the core once they leave the theatre. But this is not surprising. For since when was a cage laden with "wires, dogs, starvation, broken bones and beatings", as one prisoner puts it, ever expected to be "normal"?

(Photos: GC Photographics.)