Much to praise in Siege tale

On Derry's Walls, Tara Breathnach and Dermott Hickson who star in 'Walking to the Ark'. (Pic: Mark Fearon)
On Derry's Walls, Tara Breathnach and Dermott Hickson who star in 'Walking to the Ark'. (Pic: Mark Fearon)

This week has seen the opening of the Playhouse’s big project for 2015. Its legacy commission, ‘Walking to the Ark’, penned by the highly acclaimed Northern Irish based playwright Carlo Gebler, was brought to life on Wednesday night.

Spanning some 25 years (with a timeshift that wasn’t immediately obvious and caused some confusion), the story recalls the tale of Colonel Thomas Whitney, a soldier in the Irish Army, and his mistress Martha Darcy.

Dermott Hickson as young Nicholas Darcy in Carlo Gebler's Walking to the Ark. (Pic: Mark Fearon)

Dermott Hickson as young Nicholas Darcy in Carlo Gebler's Walking to the Ark. (Pic: Mark Fearon)

Opening with their relationship - the passion between the pair played out as a gentle dance, with exquisite prose in places - a scene set some 25 years later revealed (eventually) that Whitney had fathered a child with Martha - a child who was now a Jacobite prisoner in Derry jail during the siege of the city.

Whitney, now on the Williamite side, finds himself visiting his son to try and make some form of amends for not acknowledging his paternity in prior years - and the play continues from there.

Much of the story telling is in the form of letters - used to explain what has happened, to reveal the innermost feelings of those who would be reserved on the outside and to move the plot on.

In the hands of the actors the letters are brought to life beautifully, not least by Tara Breathnach as Martha.

Tara Breathnach who is breathtaking as Martha Darcy in 'Walking to the Ark' at the Playhouse.

Tara Breathnach who is breathtaking as Martha Darcy in 'Walking to the Ark' at the Playhouse.

Each word was spoken with passion, with thought and with purpose by this actress - and I could not help but find her performance the strongest on the stage. As a wife, as a lover, as a mother, as a woman who wants to believe that she can be happy, she was outstanding.

It is in Martha’s words - that Gebler’s writing, for me, was most powerful. There was a cadence to her monologues, a beautiful rhythm of alliteration which was portrayed wonderfully.

In other places, I found the text of the play heavy - loaded with historical information and while, of course, the play was set in the context of a unique period in our city’s history it did feel a bit forced in places - and more like a history lesson than the natural flow of conversation.

It was at times at odds with the true story of the play which was about the bonds of family, the difficult decisions people must make in times of war and the redemption of the characters - in particular Colonel Whitney.

Turning away from the text of the play - and focusing on the performances on stage it was, as I said, Tara Breathnach who stood out for me. It was hard not to watch her when she was on stage as every movement, never mind every word, was so laden with purpose.

She was joined on stage by Dermott Hickson as her son, Nicholas Darcy - who perfectly portrayed the role of a young soldier in turmoil. It was however in the scenes where he did not speak - where he contemplated what may lie ahead of him that the real strength of his acting shone. His desperation, fear and grief was all too real, without his need to utter a word.

The role of Colonel Thomas Whitney was played, ably, by Peter Hudson - who seemed more at ease in the second half of the performance than the first and who, on showing his character’s vulnerabilities, became more believable.

The only local actor on stage was Pat Lynch, as Turnkey - the gaoler. There to provide some light relief - with a dark Northern humour - but also to become a melancholic character, he again seemed more comfortable in the second half of the performance and it was then that he put in a performance that offered depth and a unique perspective on the unfolding drama. At times threatening, at other times caring and courteous Turnkey was a multi-dimensional character who was worth watching.

Where this production really had the wow factor however was in the staging and direction from the in-house team at the Playhouse - not least director Kieran Griffiths who brings a creative but controlled approach to each new production to grace the stage in Artillery Street. It is under his direction that the play pushes the boundaries - and audiences should not expect to come see a traditional staging of this new work. There is no doubt that the Playhouse is lucky to have him under its umbrella.

Credit must of course go to all the backroom staff at the Playhouse - and especially to Phil Ruddock and Tommy Callan who designed and built a set which really puts the audience in the centre of the action - caught between the characters and their inner and outer battles. I would try to describe the unique setting, but I would not do it justice, except to say it is something worth seeing for yourself.

‘Walking to the Ark’ is not perfect - but there is much to praise. When it works, it really works - providing moments of genuinely breathtaking emotion. The staging is innovative, the actors performances, for the most part, are strong and believable. It is worth seeing and all involved should be congratulating themselves on a job well done. It is worthy of the legacy title - but for such projects, intrinsically tied in with our cultural legacy, it would be nice to see local playwright in the spotlight, with a local cast supporting the excellent local production team.

‘Walking to the Ark’ runs at the Playhouse until Saturday, May 30. To book 02871268027 or visit www.derryplayhouse.co.uk