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Birthright by T C Murray at Finborough Theatre | Review

When American audiences first saw the Abbey Theatre Dublin’s production of school teacher T C Murray’s Birthright in 1911 they were scandalised by the incendiary nature of the play’s material: NOT the romanticised Ireland they believed in: “no cottage with roses around the door, no Wicked Landlord a la Boucicault, no loving old mother…. {but a } stark, ugly tragedy played between father, mother and two sons”. (DeGiacomo: T C Murray – Dramatic Voice of Rural Ireland)

Birthright - credit Craig Fuller.
Birthright – credit Craig Fuller.

More than one hundred years later it still has the power to shock; in fact, my colleague said that the father Bat Morissey, a powerful, frightening, ever-angry portrayal by Padraig Lynch, reminded her very strongly of her grandfather who was born in 1910 and had exactly the same traits of character, none of which were pleasant. She was even more shocked by Maura, his wife, a totally believable example of someone who has been downtrodden for so long that she just accepts life, however bad that is. Rosie Armstrong just looks the role: so weary of life, the arguments, of never being allowed to have her say, of always being blamed…

In Irish rural communities at the turn of the twentieth century, there was little or no education – the British preferred the Irish to remain ignorant – unless you were able to attend one of the informal, secret and illegal “hedge” schools. Bat is ignorant and seemingly proud of it, but he has two sons Hugh (Thomas Fitzgerald) who is idealistic, accomplished, a poet, altar boy and star member of the local Hurling team and uninterested in the farm, and Shane (Peter Broderick) who is passionate about farming but, as the younger brother, has to emigrate as the farm could not support both brothers and their future families when Bat dies. The play takes place on the day when the father makes a decision that will tear the family apart. Both actors complement each other well and build their eventual confrontation to a frightening climax: always believable and never larger than life.

The Irish Daily News review of the original Abbey production said that it achieved “the Ibsenite ideal of making the spectator feel that he is going through a piece of real experience”, and so does this production.

Scott Curran’s direction moves at a terrific pace when needed and is beautifully structured. The Irish rural accents are “spot on” according to my colleague: she still has relatives who speak in just the same way, saying very similar things, and that also applies to Raphaella Philcox’s costumes which have been researched in depth and then designed with imagination. Philcox’s evocative farmhouse set using a thrust stage succeeds in making the Finborough Theatre feel larger than it is and Dimitris Kafataris’ fights are totally believable and shocking.

This play says more in just over one hour than most plays say in double the time, making it totally involving. You would never imagine that this was Murray’s second work for the stage, written in the evenings after school. DeGiacomo describes all of his 17 plays as “well crafted and deeply in contact with Irish rural life.. maintaining a strong unity of theme: the need for social, religious and individual freedom. His characters strive for self-determination...” as indeed they do in BIRTHRIGHT.

A curiosity is the secondary role of Dan Hegarty (Aidan McGleenan) who appears to be used in the opening scene just to give Maura someone to talk to and “set up” the play for the audience. It is a shame that his Irish accent is not convincing, but he is hampered by having to stand and hold a conversation at the front right of the acting area ( ie downstage left) in total darkness. In fact, the lighting design (Catja Hamilton) is very strange at times: in the second scene, which is supposedly lit only by candles, the audience is unable to see the actors’ faces for about ten minutes as they are in total blackness, even though some of the rest of the stage is lit – almost as if they have positioned themselves incorrectly, or as if acting in a radio play! Music (Chris Warner) is used as background at principal moments of tension in the play, but this seems unnecessary and too “modern”. The play is more than good enough not to need help!

Overall, though, this is yet another Finborough rediscovery – a marvellous play that has lain unseen for 90 years. It grips you so that you are willing it to end in a certain way, yet knowing all the time that tragedy is just around the corner. VERY powerful. VERY highly recommended!

4 stars

Review by John Groves

Rural Ireland just before the First World War.

Bat and Maura Morrissey have two fine sons. Hugh is idealistic and accomplished: an altar boy, poet, captain of the hurling team, and pride of his mother. Shane is a born farmer: diligent, obedient, and hardworking.

Much to Bat’s frustration, tradition dictates that Hugh is set to take over the farm, whilst Shane will be forced to emigrate to America.

Over the course of one day, family ambition collides with Hugh’s birthright, and the close-knit family is torn apart forever…

Inspired by the biblical story of Esau and Jacob, Birthright is a forgotten masterpiece of Irish theatre.

Production Team
Set and Costume Designer RAPHAELLA PHILCOX
Sound Designer CHRIS WARNER
Associate Producer MAHOGANY ALLEN

Presented by Ecclesia in association with Neil McPherson for the Finborough Theatre.


T. C. Murray
Tuesday, 5 September 2023 – Saturday, 30 September 2023

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  • John Groves

    John Groves studied singing with Robert Easton and conducting with Clive Timms. He was lucky enough to act in the British premiere of a Strindberg play at the Edinburgh Festival Fringe more years ago than he cares to remember, as well as singing at the Royal Opera House - once! He taught drama and music at several schools, as well as examining the practical aspects of GCSE and A level drama for many years. For twenty five years he has conducted a brass band as well as living on one of the highest points of East Sussex surrounded by woodland, deer, foxes and badgers, with kites and buzzards flying overhead.

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