Tuesday 12 September 2023

Theatre review: Birthright

T.C. Murray's 1910 play Birthright is apparently inspired by the biblical story of Jacob and Esau, so I assume I don't need to say anything more about the plot. No? OK, it's set on a farm in rural Ireland where Bat (Pádraig Lynch) and Maura Morrissey (Rosie Armstrong) have two grown-up sons: Hugh (Thomas Fitzgerald) is his mother's favourite, the sportsman, poet and scholar with an interest in current affairs and the wider world. Shane (Peter Broderick) is the born farmer, and therefore his father's favourite. In fact it's not so much that Bat likes Shane more, as it is that he hates Hugh with a fiery vengeance, basically for taking after his mother more than him. Still, Hugh's the oldest, and therefore Bat has always sworn that the farm will be left to him, while Shane, who's been keeping the place going for the last few years, is planning to emigrate to America in a few days' time.

The play opens with local man Dan (Aidan McGleenan) coming round to pick up a sack of flour, and while he's there sing Hugh's praises for captaining the hurling team to another great victory, and describing how much the whole town loves him.

This is of course like a red rag to a bull to Hugh's father, who flies into a rage which only gets worse when the family's mare breaks a leg and has to be put down with Chekhov's gun. This is a very short play that essentially consists of a lot of shouting, and you've got to feel sorry for Armstrong as Maura ends up on the receiving end of a lot of verbal abuse from her husband, and later her younger son (I'd like to say that Murray is sympathetic to the unwarranted torrent she receives for a full hour but that would be a very 21st century reading - the play seems to come down on the side of blaming the mother for what happens because she didn't favour the younger son as much, conveniently overlooking the fact that the father actively and openly despises the elder.)

As well as the misogyny, there’s a definite undertone to what it is that Bat finds so objectionable about his first-born: Despite there being nothing stereotypically effeminate about either Hugh’s manner, or the things he occupies him time with, it’s clear that his father believes he takes after his mother in far too many ways (the fact that he can read and write is pretty damning; Shane can as well, of course, but the fact that he never seems to do so by choice gives him a pass.) While its claustrophobic world is a window into the past and the effects of a narrow-minded viewpoint, the play’s failure to condemn these views makes it not particularly surprising that Birthright hasn’t been staged in London in 90 years.

Where Scott Hurran’s production does make a strong case for it is as a concise, taut piece of drama that builds and winds its way to its conclusion (that doesn’t even feature Chekhov’s Gun, making that a nice misdirect.) Raphaella Philcox’s dingy set only gets more claustrophobic as the lights go down and much of the latter half is candlelit, and Chris Warner’s sound design builds a positively oppressive, thunderous background as things turn from nasty to outright dangerous. The play itself feels a bit too sympathetic to some of the dodgier attitudes on show, but the revival uses it to build some of the most effective tension I’ve seen on stage in a while, and all constructed at great pace.

Birthright by T.C. Murray is booking until the 30th of September at the Finborough Theatre.

Running time: 1 hour 5 minutes straight through.

Photo credit: Craig Fuller.

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