Experience male nudity, some good ol’ Irish drunkenness and momentary bouts of incomprehension in Brian Friel’s Freedom of the City. Oh, and probably a good deal of emotional attachment and heartbreak. Lily, Michael and Skinner (Niamh Furey, Dominic Ballard and Andrew Wynne-Owne, respectively) mistakenly wind up in the Derry’s guildhall following a tear-gassed civil rights march. The play follows the development and interaction of these three characters as their final hours are interwoven with scenes from the tribunal investigating their deaths by British forces.
Despite the obvious opportunities for overwrought links with the Arab Spring, student protests and riots or the Irish economy, it was a breath of fresh air to hear from the directors that the play would mainly focus on the characters as individuals, rather than on politics. Lily describes going on a march as the only bit of exercise she gets in a week. Think ordinary people swept up in history. Collateral damage – except that you’ll really know them by the end.
At first appearance, I find the characters prone to stereotyping: Lily a Mrs Bennett-esque character, complete with verbal diarrhoea and a strange combination of banalities, clichés and a certain pragmatic wisdom; a more earnest, marginally more politically-minded type in Michael; and Skinner, the classic table-banging Irish drunkard (guess which one’s going topless!). Top notch acting continuously develops and undermines these stereotypes, creating three utterly believable, highly different individuals, who will come to feel like old friends in the couple of hours they spend with the audience. The actors work well together, with Lily’s attempts to make conversation with Michael interrupted by clamours from the tipsy Skinner and it is through the combination of their odd conversations and self-important mini monologues (largely ignored by the other characters) that their stories and personalities are revealed and evolved. This is helped by good blocking and clever interaction between characters and set, if the set I saw is anything like it’ll be in the real thing. The only problem, so often haunting accented plays, is that although the accents were very authentic, they tended to get in the way of clarity.
Only getting to see the mayor parlour scenes puts a slight strain on previewing the play as a whole, but my guess is, given the individual line taken, that the tribunal parts will be understated, leaving the tragic elements to come through naturally through. Expect a full exploitation of the tragic and the comic scope of the play – with acting and direction producing characters well worth laughing and crying for. Though be warned: the truer the accent, the more likely you are to be spending your time straining to work out the words.
Freedom of the City will be on from Wednesday to Saturday 6th week (14-17 Nov) in the Morris Room at the Oxford Union.