The Sword & The Sand | Theatre Review
The Lyric Theatre, Belfast • 09 May ’18
By Conor O’Neill
Rawlife Theatre Company’s blurb states the following: “We are highly focused on attracting new audiences to the theatre by producing shows with challenging and sometimes controversial themes that speaks directly to our modern audience.” Not to have them resting on their laurels, but going by tonight’s showing of The Sword & The Sand they’ve delivered that and more. Teaming up with Belfast writer, Pearse Elliott, they’ve nailed their colours to the mast and brought to the Lyric’s Naughton Theatre a tale of loss, double-cross and arguably redemption.
Azir (Mark Azante) comes from unidentified foreign shores, he’s not quick to release personal information, and during his spell in incarceration, while waiting for refugee status to be acknowledged, he obviously rubbed shoulders with the wrong crowd. The ‘wrong crowd’ being associated with Duff, almost head honcho of an unspecified continuity republican group. Duff, played by Marty Maguire is a vain psychopathic maniac with melatonin injections – as well as other sorts of medications for the vain – and three grand’s worth of delft in his mouth. With a winning smile and a tan to make even the late Bob Monkhouse pale, by comparison, Azir soon becomes his butler. But Azir has credentials. Azir has history.
Duff has his story too. His tales of the good old days: “Lenadoon Avenue, 1984, nose broke three times by the Brits.” leave new-to-the-cause Cricky (Gerard Jordan Quinn) enthralled and dying to make his mark. Cricky, or Christopher to well-spoken Azir, seeks a 32 county socialist state, an ideal that seems to have left Duff some time ago. All the tanned one seeks is turning over the local drug dealers, holidays in Malibu and ‘relaxation’ time with his piece of skirt Lala. Lala (Bernadette Brown) is far from the cuckoo land her nickname would suggest. 25-years-old she may well be but there’s an old head on young shoulders.
The last of the characters is the briefly seen Mr. Big Tony ‘Turbo’ Molloy (Paddy Jenkins). Duff’s hatred of the man knows no bounds, Turbo’s ill-gotten gains could be put to better use, most of it going to the cause, the rest setting Duff on the high-roller lifestyle he desires. Hearing that Turbo is to attend the christening of one of his many illegitimate kids, or ‘bastards’ in Duff’s eyes and raging that not only does Molloy have a house in Bulgaria but also is driving a: “White, 5 litre Range Rover buck-me-bus.” Duff plans his revenge.
All characters are well formed and complex. It would be easy to see Duff as a sex-crazed walking mid-life crisis, but Elliott’s nuanced approach humanises the psycho. His OCD is endearing, Maguire plays him with the intensity he deserves. Noticing the cigarette and caffeine addicted Azir has pinched a few quid from his beloved collection of pound coins from his huge and hugely naff Coca-Cola bottle in his beautifully manicured apartment, complete with 42-inch plasma TV, Duff resorts to a language that is understood across the globe. I’ve seen Maguire in a multitude of roles, from Crazy to Philadelphia, Here We Come, this is the maddest, meanest I’ve seen him to date.
Mark Asante’s Azir evolves at a snail’s pace during the show. His 24 years’ in the game, running the gauntlet of theatre, radio, small and big screen are not by fluke. The dream sequence of him meeting his dead wife is eerily haunting, captivating and outstanding. With twin daughters wiped out by a US drone and his guarded approach and humility to life is surely one of the many highlights of this piece of theatre.
Again, another realisation to myself, and possibly a large segment of the one hundred of us in the audience, is Gerard Jordan Quinn’s Cricky. As one half of The Balloon Factory, I’ve only ever seen Quinn deliver slapstick comedic roles. His portrayal of an idealistic, empathetic if the somewhat misled character is a revelation. Dying for his first kill he may be, but unlike Duff, he knows his ISIS from his, to quote Duff: “Towel-heads” and “TallyBan” and Cricky reveals: “I watch Aljazeera, you know!”
Bernadette Brown for the second year running teams up with Rawlife. 2017 saw her play Paula in the publicly and critically acclaimed Here We Lie. Tonight her performance only compounds the notion that she’s one talented lady. Her backstory, at the hands of Elliott, is full and believable. She’s a lot more going for her than just making the ironing a little more pleasurable. The term a ‘Tart with a heart’ could have been penned for Lala. Yes, she’s fond of the margaritas, unfortunately, has a penchant for the bad boys, but ultimately hers is a story of wrong choices, teenage rebellion and a love for her family.
Finally, there’s Tony ‘Turbo’ Molloy. We see him briefly, but what an impact Paddy Jenkins makes with his 20 minutes on stage. Cable-tied to a wheelchair, head in a sack and at the mercy of Duff, Jenkins begins defiantly. He may not have ordered a kebab but tonight he’s in for one of Duff’s special ‘mixed grills’. As his ordeal unfolds defiance leads to begs of mercy, then clarity as the inevitable looms. Molloy and Duff argue the finer points of criminality, Molloy poking holes in Duff’s wayward idealism.
And that’s the crux of the story. We may not move from our seats, but we’re taken from one war-torn country to, arguably, another, question western intervention in the middle-east, put a microscope to Northern Ireland’s fallout from the Troubles, see ‘ideology’ from different perspectives, and feel the threat and coarse texture of shark skin in deep and dangerous waters. All this is achieved with minimal set changes; we go no further than from Duff’s apartment to his nightclub. Music and lighting play as much as a role as any of the actors, shuddering strobes and thunderous squeals and booms of electronica move the mind from a pitch black theatre to the horrors caused and lived by humans the planet over.
The direction of Martin McSharry, the pen of Elliott, the talents of the cast and crew make The Sword & The Sand must-see theatre.
The Sword & The Sand runs until 27 May. For booking details visit www.lyrictheatre.co.uk or phone the box office on 02890 381081
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