Sitting in the dark in The Irish Repertory Theatre's production of The Freedom of the City, I couldn't help thinking how much I like Brian Friel's work. Here is a playwright who has taken an event -- "Bloody Sunday" -- and created a play around it that is both an intricate piece of theater and a historical education. Under Ciarán O'Reilly's direction, Irish Rep's beautifully staged production mines the play for every nuance while creating a unified world.
Brian Friel, who is perhaps best known for plays such as Dancing at Lughnasa, Philadelphia, Here I Come, and Translations, is a very gifted storyteller. Every time I see a play of his, I am surprised by the way he manages to mix humor into sad circumstances, and how he constructs his plots like intricate pieces of needlework.
The Freedom of the City is a prime example of these two traits. The world was outraged in 1972 when three people were killed by the British Parachute Regiment in Derry, Northern Ireland following a civil rights march. As I sat down to watch the play, I worried about how depressing the show might be, considering the historical basis. After the first few lines, I remembered that I never should have worried, because I was in Brian Friel's capable hands. Of course, the show has some brutal moments that come with the territory, but distinctly human and comic moments that make up the majority of the play are what make this play special.
Charlie Corcoran's well-designed set morphs from place to place as the story of the last hours of the three victims is imagined in context. You see, the thing I admire most about this play is the way it shifts its scale from scene to scene: We see Skinner (Joseph Sikora), Lily (Cara Seymour), and Michael (James Russell) inside of The Guildhall, but we also see snippets of how various groups react to them. We see the official inquiry about the deaths, but we also see a folksinger writing a song about them, a sociologist explaining the broader behavior patterns, a priest speaking at their funeral, etc.
Yet our experiences with Skinner, Lily, and Michael teach us to be suspicious of all of these outsiders making these three individuals out to be a symbol for their argument for or against certain issues. The most subversive thing about this play is how it challenges any one conclusion about the three people who died that day as accidental martyrs.
And you will laugh. That's right, there are a lot of very funny moments. I will never forget seeing Friel's translation of Anton Chekhov's Three Sisters in Dublin and realizing that Masha is a hilariously funny character. Friel knows how to bring out the comic tones of a piece without trivializing the issues at hand, and The Freedom of the City is no exception.
I realize that I have spent a lot of time talking about the actual play itself, and less about the specific production, but I always think that is a good sign. I have so much to say about the play because the production did an excellent job of expressing the play. It is well-acted and well-designed, which means that more of your energy and attention can be spent trying to sort through the various ethical and philosophical issues that are being addressed.
In case you couldn't tell, I really enjoyed this play. I also feel as though it taught me an incredible amount about Bloody Sunday without ever falling back on methods of proselytizing or indoctrination. This play admits that the events that took place on Bloody Sunday were terrible but complex.
So if you want to spend an intelligent night at the theater, as the show is entertaining, but by no means light entertainment, head over to The Freedom of the City. You'll see Irish Rep put the "free" in Friel.