The so-called 'Flight of the Earls' was an important event in Irish history well known to anyone brought up in the Republic, but virtually unheard of on this side of the Irish Sea. That may account for the lack of a mainland professional production of this fine work by Ireland's greatest living playwright, and the Company of Players are to be congratulated for bringing it to us. The audience's presumed ignorance of the historical background was no doubt the reason for the brief voice -over account of its significance before the play started, a decision which made a lot of sense.
What the audience couldn't be expected to recognise is Friel's intention to set Hugh O'Neill's image free from the hero worship which has surrounded it in the centuries since his failed attempt to free Ireland from English control. Whether it is the popular image or Friel's that is closer to the truth is hard for anyone now to say, but in terms of a theatrical review that isn't relevant. The success of the play depends on the fascination of the story, on the rich variety of the leading characters, and the complex relationships they have with one another. I thought all of those virtues were well demonstrated in this excellent production.
To succeed, the play needs a really good actor to play O'Neill, and that it certainly got in the person of Jim Markey. I have of course seen Jim in many other productions, but I thought this could well be his finest performance yet; a superb portrayal of the man's subtlety, intelligence and humanity, and of the misery of his eventual failure and exile.
Chris Janes has a great ability to use stillness to convey what the character is thinking, and gave a convincing and subtle performance as as O'Neill's faithful and ever present secretary Harry Hovenden. There was good support too from Barry Grossman as his biographer and ally Archbishop Lombard; Richard Sheridan as the volatile Hugh O'Donnell (congratulations to him on a very authentic Ulster accent); Jo Manser as O'Neill's third wife, the Staffordshireborn Mary, and Sarah Doyle Smith as her sister Mabel.
Chris Janes's set designs were simple yet striking, and I particularly admired his curtained setting for the third scene, O'Neill's rural hideout, which cleverly suggested a tented camp. Excellent costumes by Shelagh Maughan completed the visual success of the piece.
One can of course find fault in even the best of productions. One element which jarred for me was the use of modern versions of Irish folk songs, which I thought unnecessarily out of period, attractive though they were as music. The first scene change struck me as unnecessarily long – the actors could have taken their props off with them, and the purpose of the change to the stage right curtain mystified me. A trick was missed in the third scene, when O'Donnell complains of his wrecked boots whilst wearing exactly the same pristine pair he had on in the first. And to get really pedantic about it, excellent though the Ulster accents of both James and Richard were, the action of the play surely pre-dated the so-called 'Ulster Plantation' of Protestant migrants from Scotland, which brought that ac cent into being.
That, you might well think, is being far too pernickety about a successful, thought provoking and entertaining evening's theatre, directed with sensitivity and surefooted skill by Siobhán Hill Elam. Let me once again applaud the decision to include this wonderful play in your season, and the cast and crew for giving it such a good performance.
Review: Richard Davies
Photographs: Steve Beeston