The Blue Boy

October 24, 2013


In the past two years the abuse and tyranny inflicted on the states’ neediest subjects have been theatricalised in a variety of ways. There was Thomas Kilroy’s Christ Deliver Us!, where the writer pounded Catholic Ireland like it was a piñata until a litany of its crimes spilt across the Abbey stage and our inaction as a nation was grimly re-exhibited.

Journalist Mary Raftery and director Roisin McBrinn mounted the Ryan Report in No Escape, a serious, somber presentation of the facts that gave the audience no opportunity to avoid or pass over the horrors inflicted on children and that even briefly managed to capture what was going through the minds of the clergy who carried the abuse out.

Sophie Motley’s reading of Richard Johnson’s 1961 play This Evidence I Shall Give stunningly articulated the motive these so called men and women of God had for taking care of the states neediest subjects (the substantial annual grants from the government). In presenting the uncut version, without the mollified ending insisted upon at the time by the Abbey, showed how, even when no one was supposed to know what was going on, it was a political hot potato.

Finally, in the Gloucester Street Magdalene Convent on Sean McDermott Street, Anu Productions are currently presenting a site-specific art instillation called Laundry, which uses theatrical conventions to trap the audience and make them a party to the abuse whilst also feeling the utter sense of helplessness experienced by these women.

What then do Brokentalkers bring to a discussion that their own program note admits the country is becoming fatigued by?

Past generations made sense of things they could not understand by fictionalising them or creating supernatural beings. The Blue Boy gets its title from a ghost seen haunting the grounds of the Artane Industrial School, purported to be that of a young boy who met his end through some form of mistreatment by the brothers who ran the place.

While the full extent of the abuse may have been beyond the comprehension of the community, the signs all pointed towards there being something seriously wrong behind the walls of the foreboding building. The blood curling screams, the bruised corpses, the unyielding violence. It bore all the hallmarks of a horror movie. And in this multidisciplinary production, co-directors Feidlim Cannon and Gary Keegan use elements of the genre – music, mask and movement – to chill, intrigue and create the distance survivors of such abuse speak of when they relive the past.

Jack Cawley’s sound design is brutal and frantic and erupts from Sean Miller’s haunting, rising score in scratches and crashes, the screeching of steel on steel piercing your ears and curdling your soul as the performers jerked, twisted and bashed their tiny frames around and against the white tiled space.

While the aesthetic embraced by Brokentalkers created a sense of the hopelessness, the perpetual threat of violence and the constant cruelty that marked the lives of the incarcerated, the facts, figures, visuals and voiceovers widened the scope of the piece so that we were too busy trying to take everything in to be truly affected by them. It also felt repetitious thanks to the aforementioned work and the never-ending stream of reports and media coverage.

Some moments though will never cease to upset. The chilling testimony of the abused recalling implements of torture used to beat them. Or the listing off, matter of factly, what they resorted to eating while starving including glue, glass and orange peels. A close up on a pair of hands making a pair of rosary beads whilst a woman recalls the pain such a process involved, conflicts with the pious ends the beads met.

Less affecting but visually flooring was when Keegan took us into the surrounding area where he lived as a child. He recalls an idyllic image, of music drifting over the walls of the institution from where the Artane Boy’s Band would practice on a summer’s day and his neighbors would play and wash their cars. A recording of his mother who remembers an all too different noise, the agonising screams of the incarcerated, chillingly shatters this memory.

Where The Blue Boy stumbles is in its desire to excavate the reason this system lasted longer than it needed to. It’s briefly alluded to in footage of the Eucharistic Congress of 1932 but it never really fleshes out the point that, like so many of the abused, the church got the state in it’s infancy. They abused our financial desperation, our inability to look after our own and our desire to create a Catholic Ireland that was morally superior to our Protestant neighbors.

The Blue Boy is an important piece of theatre. It’s a story that needs to be told. Here it is told through a multitude of mediums each successfully harnessed to serve an individual purpose. But one wishes Brokentalkers had thought more carefully about the over all story they wanted to tell.

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