Now this is the way to launch a festival. After the initial, unfortunate hiccup of the Lyric Theater’s “Give Me Your Answer, Do!,” the Friel Festival began in earnest last week with the Abbey’s excavation of this little-performed, extraordinarily theatrical play, written in 1971 in response to the Bloody Sunday shootings in Derry.
“The Freedom of the City” reveals an angry, political side of Friel that Irish people are likely to have forgotten and most Americans have probably never known, and as such is a brilliantly daring choice as the Abbey’s contribution to the Lincoln Center Friel mini-festival this summer.
What gives “Freedom” interest beyond the immediate historical event that inspired it is not just the continuing topicality of the conflict in Northern Ireland; it’s also Friel’s extraordinary ability to reach beyond the immediate political situation to the human issues behind it. The play establishes and fleshes out themes that extend throughout Friel’s writing — the inability of language to capture and contain experience and the subjectivity and vulnerability of what we call history. Conall Morrison’s inspired production places the play in its time period while at the same time injecting it with a theatrical energy that allows its deeper messages to come through.
In order to establish the facts of the play, it’s first necessary to say that the play is about the establishment of fact — about how a singular event is interpreted, manipulated and altered by everyone involved in or affected by it.
The event in question is not Bloody Sunday itself — in which British troops opened fire on a group of Catholic protesters, killing 13 civilians — but a similar tragedy of Friel’s own invention, in which three working-class Catholics take refuge in Derry’s Guildhall to escape a tear-gas attack during a civil rights rally.
The play’s first moment tells us exactly what’s going to happen to the three fictional protesters: We discover them lying in pools of blood outside the Guildhall as photographers swirl around and a robed priest says last rites over their bodies. Historic photos of the Derry marches are projected onto a huge screen; sounds of chanting and cheering fill the theater; a judge takes to a raised podium to announce the beginning of a tribunal — “a fact-finding exercise” — to determine what actually happened at the Guildhall that day.
With a fabulous flourish of theatrics — the mayor’s office within the Guildhall literally assembles before our eyes — the play then backtracks to the moment when the three protesters first enter the building. Their story then advances in “real time” as other voices and characters periodically interrupt the action to provide their commentary.
A lone weak link is the interjections of an American sociologist who discourses on the effects of poverty on the human psyche, Friel’s clunky — and unnecessary — attempt to broaden and universalize the issues.
While Friel makes no attempt to hide his political allegiances — the Catholics are presented as innocent victims and the tribunal as corrupt — he sends up the mythologizing and objectification that happens on both sides, from the army’s paranoid overreaction toward the “terrorist” threat to a Catholic balladeer’s exaggerated eulogizing of the “100 dead.” What he’s really investigating is not who’s right or wrong but the very nature of truth, an idea encapsulated in the play’s coup de theatre at the top of the second act, as Lily , Michael and Skinner, each isolated in a spotlight, narrate the moments leading up to their deaths. Friel here imbues them with more eloquence than they ever had in their real (unreal) lives, reminding us that in the end it is the playwright himself who is speaking.
The heart of the play is the exchanges among the three main characters, and they are here both humane and believable. While Michael Colgan, as the self-styled outcast Skinner, draws excessive attention to himself with his self-conscious twitching, Gerard Crossen as the uptight Michael and especially Sorcha Cusack as the simple housewife Lily offer perfectly controlled, beautifully observed performances.
Morrison typically commands Abbey’s vast stage with tremendous authority; every aspect of the production, from Francis O’Connor’s brilliantly conceived set, Ben Ormerod’s beautifully specific lighting, Dave Nolan’s scarily encroaching sound and the intensely committed performances by the large supporting cast, combine to create a complete and compelling environment for the action.
It’s likely that when Friel wrote this play, it was in the hope that it would soon become a document of a past time. The play now stands as a living reminder of a struggle that has tragically extended to this day, but also as a testament to the depth and breadth of Friel’s oeuvre.