The Freedom of the City
Irish writers would win more Nobel Prizes in Literature if the country had more than three million people, or if it were even clear what and where Ireland is.
Last week China (population 1.3 billion) claimed a possibly deserved Nobel in the category. Yet neither of Ireland’s two greatest writers, William Trevor and Brian Friel, have won. This is even though both are now in their eighties, and one is generally acknowledged to be the greatest living short story writer while the other is in the running for the title of greatest living playwright.
Evidence that Friel may be the world’s best dramatist can be found over at the Irish Repertory Theater where a very fine, if little known, play of his dealing with Irish politics and identity is being presented in a superb new production.
If you only know Friel for his hit play and movie "Dancing At Lughnasa" you may not know that much of his work has a decided political element to it. But that Irish nationalism is one of the subjects of "The Freedom of the City" is perhaps not surprising given that the author is a Londonderry native, and it was there that The Troubles first emerged.
These were the campaigns of Ulster’s Catholic minority for political emancipation, better treatment and union of the six counties of northern Ireland with the 26 counties comprising the Republic to the south.
What may be more surprising is how entertaining and often very funny Friel’s satirical take on the situation is. If his story in the ironically titled "Freedom of the City" is ultimately very dark, it’s also lively, satirical and amusing.
The playwright is aided here by the outstanding cast that director Ciaran O’Reilly has picked. Most notable are the actors playing the play’s three central characters: Lily, a housewife with 11 children (Cara Seymour): Michael, an unemployed student with middle class values and aspirations (James Russell): and Skinner, a petty thief and lighthearted mocker of the establishment (Joseph Sikora).
The story is set in 1970 just as The Troubles are beginning. Identified by the British police and Army as terrorists, Friel’s trio have fled the disorder and tear gas used on a public protest on the city streets by hiding out, unarmed, in the Guild Hall, the city’s municipal building. Caught within it, they drink, fight and chatter animatedly in the Mayor’s unoccupied suites as the authorities plot their remove with battalions of riflemen.
Who would think that so much of this could be so funny?
The shaven-headed Sikora is delightful in the part of the free-spirited rascal Skinner, but equally impressive are Seymour and Russell in the far less showy roles of the impoverished housewife and student.
As they await their fates, we also see various commentators, including a pretentious professor who discusses the "existentialism" of the poor. The bitterness is sardonic, and as in all of Friel’s work, we see the author’s ability to depict people with flesh and blood.
I suspect that the production would have worked even better with some cuts in the second act, but the strength of both play and production is hard to dispute.