Review: A night in the cages proves captivating

The cast of Over the Wire
The cast of Over the Wire

The eagerly awaited ‘Over the Wire’ opened at The Playhouse on Monday evening and the wait was worth it.

While much has been made, and rightly so, of the elaborate set design, in the end it proves simply as ‘suitable dressing’ for one man’s descent into madness: A prisoner losing himself in face of the fact that life, or more accurately, death in the cages may be all he has ahead of him.

The harrowing, looming, invasive nature of the surroundings, which consists of one large barbed wire adorned cage with the audience in the round, is simply daunting.

It adds so much to the performance and to the sense of ‘Are we OK to watch this happen?’

Set after republicans set fire to the Maze prison on October 15, 1974 we join the internees and sentenced prisoners as they shelter from the winter conditions under a ripped sheet of plastic, huddled together for heat.

Having taken the prison for a short spell the consequences of the riot proved disasterous for republicans. The subsequent beatings, gassing, hunger, paranoia, loneliness and fear of being forgotten are all examined in Seamus Keenan’s latest offering.

Though ably dealt with, these issues are far from the strength of the play, that comes from the honest humour in the writing. Who laughs at a forced strip search? Well anyone who sees this play really.

That said the power of the piece lies not in its ability to shock but to entertain. There are barbs in the script much sharper than those atop the fencing. The ability to confront us with the horror of this difficult period of our history but still have the audience entertained is a remarkable feat. A task achieved in no small part thanks to a splendid cast performance. Theatre heavyweight Jim Lecky is joined by a talented ensemble of the finest actors, namely Martin Bradley, Micheál McDaid, Andy Doherty, Bill Waters, Geoff Coke and Pat Lynch.

It is Pat’s portrayal of IRA man Lucas which captures the audience, and considering all that is going on, that is no easy task.

While not every character’s narrative is explored as vividly, indeed gruesomely as Lucas, and whether it was the fact we watched through the cage, or that he was only a few feet away, or that he was like a steam train going down hill, his characters journey was simply awesome to watch. An edge of the seat performance in an edge of the seat production.

That said a sizable percentage of our shared society would still no doubt choose not to watch this. The examination of what proved the largest ground battle between the IRA and the British Army during the ‘troubles’ will no doubt have its critics politically.

Artistically I have just one. That is the elaborate set, while adding to the experience for the viewer, reduces audience capacity so much that the piece will struggle to get the audience it deserves. Be it art for arts sake, art for culture or art for political discourse the piece, for me, would be much better served shown to hundreds instead of dozens. That said there is no doubt the cast should prepare for a long spell in the cage as ‘Over The Wire’ seems set to run and run.

To quote an audience member interned during the period portrayed: “I thought it was great, accurate and enjoyable but the sound of the helicopter got me. There was no protection against those. I never thought then we would be watching it as a play all these years later.”

A sentiment which no doubt will be repeated time and time again thanks to this production. ‘Over The Wire’ is perhaps the most captivating theatre commissions Derry has hosted in recent years.

‘Over The Wire’ runs at The Playhouse until Saturday. Tickets 71 268027.