You don’t have to know your IRA from your UDA, your Nationalists from your Loyalists — though it would certainly help — to enjoy “The Force of Change,” Belfast dramatist Gary Mitchell’s pistol of a play set amid the seemingly intractable world of Northern Ireland’s “troubles.” Previous plays on this topic — one thinks immediately of Ron Hutchinson’s no less explosive “Rat in the Skull” from some 15 years back — have pitched their drama across a sectarian divide, pitting Protestant against Catholic in a climate in which everyone loses out. So the first thing worth noting this time around is the fearlessness of Mitchell’s report from within a Protestant milieu so splintered and fractious that nobody is safe.
Yes, the acronyms and names come thick and fast, some (Gerry Adams, David Trimble) better known than others, and the public that will get the most out of the play will recognize the immediate flashpoint that is, say, Drumcree. (What’s more, this may be that rare Northern Irish play in which the IRA barely figures.) But to regard “The Force of Change” as a contemporary history lesson requiring homework is to deny Mitchell’s very real skill as well as director Robert Delamere’s sterling (with one exception) cast. To be sure, the collusion here on view carries a special sting in its given milieu. But it functions equally as crisp, vibrant playwriting sure to resonate well away from those war-torn Ulster streets that Mitchell — perhaps bravely, given his own burgeoning status as a take-no-prisonersProtestant writer living among the very community he is critiquing — continues to call home.
Simon Higlett’s narrow playing space bisects the Royal Court’s tiny Theater Upstairs, including within it enough slamming doors on this occasion to fuel a sex farce. Such frippery, however, couldn’t be further from the action at hand, which presses two interrogation rooms and the linking corridor into the service of a combustible cross-section of Royal Ulster Constabulary policemen — and the one policewoman whose gender amid the prevailing machismo has made her a loose cannon. That lone female is Caroline (Cathy White), a married detective sergeant who can’t stop goading her given prey of the moment, a sullen UDA terrorist suspect named Stanley Brown (Stephen Kennedy).
Abetted by older colleague Bill (Sean Caffrey), Caroline takes command in one interview room, prodding and patronizing the tattooed Stanley, who for his part barely speaks (at the outset, anyway) except to deliver up a narrative coup at the end of the first act. Down the hall in interview room two is a potentially related case involving a 19-year-old joyrider nicknamed Rabbit (Gerard Jordan), who is as cocksure a suspect as Stanley is ominously, silently clenched. Taking charge of Rabbit’s questioning are rank-and-file Mark (Jason Isaacs) and university-schooled David (Stuart Graham), ostensible colleagues ensnared in a divisive culture that — or so Mitchell suggests — fails to respect religion no matter where you sit on the ideologically electrified fence.
As it happens, the ongoing Protestant-Catholic agony here pales next to a portrait of corruption driven as much by issues of gender, age, education and class as by sectarian dogma. The self-made David, for instance, can’t stomach the thought that his ambitions might be thwarted by a woman: As he puts it, dropping his voice to make the barely audible point, “tits don’t get the job; balls do.” As the recipient of such sexism, the targeted Caroline has absorbed her colleagues’ broadsides at great personal cost to herself. Up for promotion, her careerism colored by the most intense anti-terrorist hatred, she is inseparable from her sarcastic sneer. It’s only a shame that White’s performance — the production’s single misjudgment — is as unvaryingly showy as the others are pulsing with truth.
The first act sometimes seems to be marking time, although White’s actressy affect doesn’t help. Everything comes right, however, in a second act of almost unbearable urgency in which brutality, incompetence and bigotry build to so strong a boil that even the play’s final line — a presumably rhetorical question — has the power to scald.
All the men are first-rate, from Isaacs’ Mark, trying against the odds to steer a sane and rational course, through to Caffrey’s Bill, a chauvinist grandfather dangerous in his extreme desperation, and Jordan’s indelibly cheeky Robert, aka Rabbit. If Graham — an actor still remembered for his invaluable contribution to the Almeida’s “Silver Tassie” in 1995 — stands slightly apart, it’s because his character does, too. “I will not have a problem making you just another name on a grave stone,” he tells Stanley, minutes before the UDA conspirator goes free. At such moments, lawlessness seems like a worn-out province’s only path toward law, delivered up a play that itself couldn’t be more potent.