“I live in Carthage among the Carthaginians, saying Carthage must be destroyed.” If there’s one thing to take away from this play, it’s the idea of Carthage as a ‘new city’. Frank McGuinness’s Carthaginians deals with County Derry and its citizens’ struggle to come to terms with their own ‘new’ city and their shattered home. The fragmentary, flighty script makes it a challenging and unusual choice of production, but one to which Tatty Hennessy, as Director, does justice.
It’s simultaneously incredibly moving but quite spaced-out; think Virginia Woolf’s The Waves, and you’ve got something quite similar to Carthaginians. Six characters sit circled together in Derry graveyard, grappling with their individual and collective traumas in the wake of Bloody Sunday in 1972. They all raise questions, attempting to find answers from each other, and it’s pretty agonizing to watch the shift from one to another, knowing that nothing can provide an adequate response. Their entire community is disjointed and torn apart. The cast is placed on stage collectively the entire time: there is quite literally no escape from each other or from the audience. However, it does give a sense of solidarity against whatever darkness lies beyond the graveyard. The stage is littered with spirit bottles, giving a simple yet very clear message about the state of these people’s lives, which require a constant means to numb pain – basically booze or conversation.
The cast is supremely reactionary, constantly watching or commenting on what each has said, and yet despite this the whole thing is a bit of an interior monologue. Vince Cochrane does a fabulous portrayal of the ‘occasionally’ insane Paul, whose determination to build a pyramid out of plastic bags seems as futile as the characters’ desire to rebuild each others’ lives. The location of the graveyard is also spine-tinglingly felt throughout, amongst the dead fragments of the lives of others, life seems determined to continue. Ghostly memories and anecdotes propel the characters to resurrect remembrances which serve as the only real basis for defining character.
Lucy Fyffe’s performance as Greta was traumatic even to watch, such was her excellent portrayal of a woman whom sanity has long abandoned, to be replaced by an overriding hysteria. There’s a strong sense throughout that another character exists, but is never fully present – that is, of course, that of Derry itself. Despite the ruin of the city, its inhabitants remain within its walls in order to satisfy some deep need; it seems like they refuse to watch it crumble and not bear that pain alongside it.
McGuinness has created a fantastic portrait of the incredibly redeeming powers of literature; quotes ranging from Chaucer to Auden pepper the dialogue, forcing the characters to move beyond themselves and seek a wider perspective. Timothy Coleman, though slightly muffled through a somewhat over-exuberant Irish accent, works very well as Dido, the metaphorical ‘queen’ of Derry, and Jack Peters is thoroughly believable as Harkin, the violent product of the country’s brutal history.
Ultimately what really makes the play a success is the wonderfully echoing fragments of poetry and song, which explode onto the stage and leave it just as suddenly. If Carthage and Derry can be called ‘new’ cities, then this is an entirely innovative working of McGuinness’s play; original and haunting.
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