The uncomfortable but necessary question — what’s really going to happen in Northern Ireland now? — fuels Gary Mitchell’s riveting new play at the Abbey’s Peacock Theater. “As the Beast Sleeps” is set in Belfast’s Protestant Rathcoole housing estate (where Mitchell himself lives) and explores with an up-to-the-minute urgency, the fragmentation within an extended family of loyalists in the context of the current cease-fire.
This is the dark side of the changes that are happening in Ireland that most people, in the celebratory atmosphere following the Belfast Agreement, would rather ignore. Mitchell courts controversy in his unabashed portrayal of the violence and lawlessness of this world — his characters are, for the most part , criminals and thugs — but what makes it such important, and dramatically successful, viewing is that his interest is not in judging these people on the morality of their lifestyle but rather taking them on their own terms.
The action centers on a loyalist social club in Rathcoole; externally, the place is sprucing up, but putting on the trappings of legitimacy cannot hide, and in fact accelerates, the community’s disintegration. With no dirty jobs to do against Catholics, Kyle (Stuart Graham) and his team are running out of money. Larry (Colum Convey), the local crime boss, offers them work cleaning up the ranks from within, which splits the team’s allegiances — Kyle decides it’s his only option, but the rest of the team refuses to turn against their own.
Meanwhile, Larry is trying to curry favor with Alec (Wesley Murphy), the area’s political leader, who in turn is turning up the heat on the club to finance his trip to America to gather support for the loyalist cause there. The plot turns into a whodunit when someone breaks into the club and steals $:35,000 ; for Kyle, the culprits turn out to be nightmarishly close to home.
What makes Mitchell’s play all the more shocking and effective is how abruptly and undefinitively it ends: He brings the action up to a crucial point and leaves the audience to stew. His message is clear: As the title implies, the beast of the conflict is dormant but will inevitably rise again as the social and economic ramifications of the changes that are happening in Ireland really set in.
This is a foul-mouthed and bloody play, but what Mitchell clearly communicates is that these people turn to violence and profanity because it is their only option; they are rendered powerless by, and have no language to describe, the changes that are transforming their lives.
The production reunites Mitchell with director (and fellow Northerner) Conall Morrison, who helmed Mitchell’s award-winning first play “In a Little World of Our Own” in the Peacock last year. The combination is again explosively good: Morrison embraces the play’s angry energy and drives it along with a sense of both inexorable forward motion and inevitable downward slide.
They are helped along by an excellent cast, especially Frank McCusker as a (very) petty bureaucrat, and Cathy White as the lone woman in the group. The designs are subtle and well-observed; Blaithin Sheerin’s revolving set, in particular, allows the action to move along with appropriate swiftness.
Mitchell is breaking new ground in his treatment of this material from a loyalist viewpoint, and clearly his is a voice that people are ready to hear; he has won several major Irish writing awards and was recently named writer-in-residence at the National Theater of Great Britain. This play and production represent some of the most exciting work going on in Ireland today, and would certainly add an important dimension to the current interest in all things Irish were some smart producer to bring it to America.