The Limits Of Our Language
First produced by the legendary Field Day Theatre Company in 1986, starring Stephen Rea and directed by Jim Sheridan, Thomas Kilroy’s indictment of nationalism made “Double Cross” very much a play of its time. A time when expressing either Irish or English sympathies in Northern Ireland could have fatal consequences. Thirty-two years later and “Double Cross” again proves itself to be a play of the times. One speaking not only to a worrying local context in light of Brexit, but to a disturbing global state of affairs in which anti-semitism and right-wing fascism are on the rise. Where nationalist hatreds are often fuelled by a manipulative media in the name of patriotism. History, it seems, isn’t repeating itself so much as learning from the past how to do hatred better. And to horrifying effect, as the recent mass murders in a Pittsburgh synagogue testify.
Looking to the past to articulate the present, “Double Cross” mirrors two historical figures from World War II and merges these frighteningly similar halves into two sides of the one play. Both Irishman desperately wanting to appear English, or anything other than Irish, they soon become natural enemies despite sharing a love of the King's English spoken with received pronunciation. The Tipperary born Brendan Bracken, who became Churchill's Minister for Information during World War II, was intent on suppressing Nazi propaganda along with any hint of his own Irish identity. This desire to reinvent himself being shared with Galway man, via Brooklyn, William Joyce, better known as Lord Haw Haw, who broadcast Nazi fake news through the wireless directly into English homes. In Kilroy’s postulating and speculating on their lives, both men understand the power of the lies we tell ourselves and the lies we’re told. Doling out propaganda, struggling in their relationships with women, reinventing their origins and identities, both men could well be brothers. Yet their chosen national identities, and reinvented personal identities, soon become shifting sands on which both are trying desperately to remain upright. But how can you hold fast to a romanticised self? One fashioned from a romanticised myth of cultural grandeur?
Throughout, there’s a density and didacticism to “Double Cross” which, like propaganda itself, often borders on the relentless and self-indulgent. One that risks Kilroy appearing as a third orator, though one more impressive and elegant than the other two. Someone whose endless spill of words mirrors the preaching of propaganda his central characters practice. Which, like his characters, risks alienating many of those around for seeming not to know when to stay silent. But Kilroy’s rich interplay of words serves an important purpose, reminding us that language is a habit, never neutral or good of itself, whose power lies in its cumulative effect. Indeed, “Double Cross” asks some hard question of language, such as how can we trust it, once it has taken us to hateful depths, to elevate us to new heights? Has language been transformed and made dead in the service of hate, whose influence runs through every avenue of its syntax? Is truth, in the end, just someone’s propaganda, depending on which side of the story you’re on?
Kilroy’s word rich interrogations pose some hard challenges which director Jimmy Fay navigates with great success, weaving a rich theatricality tapestry. If “Double Cross” shows hints of Dostoyevsky, Fay wisely frames it in 1940s cinematic style, one of news reels and Casablanca looking noir. Vehicles, like Bracken and Joyce’s wireless broadcasts, in which the medium served the needs of their politicised messages. A clever approach which may see “Double Cross” resonate deeper with a contemporary audience more familiar with politicised war movies, unaware perhaps of the power radio once held during the war years. A period wonderfully evoked in Ciaran Bagnall’s visually stunning set, lit to near perfection in hints of sepia and searchlight white by Paul Keogan. Chris Warner’s rich sound design scores the songs and sounds of the era to terrific effect, alongside Neil O’Driscoll’s video designs built from black and white images superbly rendered. The era again being perfectly replicated in Gillian Lennox’s superb costumes, which add depth and dimension to three impressive performances.
While Sean Kearns and Charlotte McCurry both shine magnificently in a series of supporting roles, Ian Toner carries the lion share of stage time as both Bracken and Joyce, turning in a truly impressive performance. Made all the more so by the fact that neither Bracken nor Joyce is particularly likeable. With Kilroy’s characters existing in crisis, minus the charm, courage, or charisma they must surely have possessed to rise to the levels they did, Toner does a marvellous job in making engaging two men so in love with their own voices you wouldn’t want to listen to them for two and a half minutes let alone two and a half hours. Even so, Toner’s enunciation leaves something to be desired at times, particularly as McCurry and Kearns nail diction, dialects, and accents supremely well. Something, one suspects, will resolve itself as the run progresses.
In 1986, “Double Cross” delivered a play of ideas that played with ideas of theatre and staging. Over thirty years later, “Double Cross” has become part of our history and heritage, yet is still deeply resonant to the here and now. In a world of dumbing down and preferring immediate satisfactions, “Double Cross” asks us to think deeper, theatrically and culturally. The monologue aspect of “Double Cross,” where characters seem to speak in monologue even when speaking to others, might well feel a little trying at moments, like sitting still while listening to a lecture. Yet if “Double Cross” asks your indulgence a little, it’s an indulgence that richly rewards. As well as an opportunity to see a truly thought provoking work by a true outsider, a master of artifice, and a lover of the word and of the stage. A playwright whose ideas, theatrically and culturally, were often far ahead of their time.
“Double Cross” by Thomas Kilroy, directed by Jimmy Fay, produced by The Abbey Theatre and Lyric Theatre, Belfast, runs at The Peacock Stage of The Abbey Theatre until November 10
For more information, visit The Abbey Theatre.