A dark episode from Ireland's emigrant history makes for fine drama in the hands of Rory Gleeson, writes Alan O'Riordan.
The story of the “Black” Donnellys, their feuds, and the eventual murder of five family members by a mob of townspeople in Ontario, is a famous piece of 19th-century Canadian frontier lore. Yet, perhaps surprisingly given the roots of those involved, it’s little known in Ireland.
Rory Gleeson (the non-acting son of Brendan Gleeson), however, in his first full-length play, brings that very Irish Canadian story back across the Atlantic, to modern-day Tipperary.
His farmer, Francis Donnelly, has both sides of the feud in his blood: he’s descended from a survivor of the massacre, who married one of the rival Currans. And he finds himself in the same elemental situation as his forebears: under threat of eviction.
The first scene is total darkness, as Donnelly fights off some hired thugs. When the lights come up he’s revealed to us: his gasping, adrenaline-fuelled breathing, the cuts and bruises of the fight. A superb Lorcan Cranitch conveys the burden he’s facing, but also his strength. This is a tough man, but near to breaking.
The police sirens cannot be far off, but Donnelly begins to recount his family legend: the staking of the claim in the wilderness, the life-or-death winters, the murderous “go fuck yourself” defiance. It’s all so familiar for Donnelly. His father built this farm, they worked the land: there is no other form of ownership, in their book.
Yet Cranitch conveys a questioning, almost poetic side that saves Donnelly from “strong, silent type” caricature. He might fling the paperwork onto a pile of animal feed, but he knows the encroaching world of writs and laws and contracts.
The one-man show can often feel threadbare, or lack any texture save that provided by the performer. This is not the case here; it’s a rich, multifaceted production. Caoimhín Ó Raghallaigh’s score, minimal and considered, never outstays its welcome. Paul Keogan’s barn set is realist, but not generic.
It mixes elements like corrugated metal panels and thick industrial plastic curtains with domestic touches: Barry Tea and Cidona next to a kettle, a lamp by some books. One of the titles we can make out is, in a wry touch, True Grit. All that said, it’s Cranitch who carries the piece, in an intense, gripping portrayal.
* Until November 30