Shadow of a Gunman, The (4 stars)

The Shadow of a Gunman

Citizens’ Theatre, Glasgow, until Sat 18 Nov


The temptation with Sean O’Casey’s celebrated Dublin trilogy, which began with The Shadow of a Gunman (1923) and continued with Juno and the Paycock (1924) and The Plough and the Stars (1926), is to present them as knock-about Oirish comedies full of loveable old rogues and working-class chancers. That they have their funny side is not open to question - O’Casey had a fantastic ear for language and a keen eye for a larger-than-life character - but he was also a fiercely political animal and to overplay the comedy is to diminish his serious purpose.

It’s the politics which seem to have attracted director Philip Breen to The Shadow of a Gunman, which becomes, in his hands, a darker than usual play with a grim contemporary relevance.

With echoes of Synge’s The Playboy of the Western World, the play hinges on a case of mistaken identity. Donal Davoren, played here with head-in-the-clouds detachment by Michael Glenn Murphy, is a poet who’s taken lodgings in a cramped Dublin tenement, sharing a room with the impoverished salesman, Seumas Shields - a rumbustious Ciaran McIntyre. When the neighbours start speculating that he’s secretly an IRA gunman, Donal plays along, amused by the ridiculousness of the idea and aroused by the effect it has on Minnie Powell (Terri Chandler), a romantic republican with the hots for him.

Far from being an inconsequential bit of fun, Donal’s complicity leads to tragedy when the British army storms the tenement and Minnie martyrs herself for a crime he never committed. O’Casey shows how even the most innocent are drawn into a conflict when political feelings are at their highest and there’s an occupying army on the streets.

By playing the two-act drama straight through without an interval, Breen allows himself to take the pace down to a sophorific level in the centre of the play. He risks losing the audience in the process, just as he does in Colin Richmond’s wall-less set which initially confuses our sense of place. The pay-off, however, comes in an explosive second half, in which both peace and property are shattered and the harsh reality of war hits home.

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