How can a play be both charming and devastating? Through its tight script, abundant humour and pitch-perfect performances, 4th Country manages to straddle these opposing forces to deliver a sublime production of an important new play.
Suspenseful and humane, we are told the story of a family that is also the story of government dysfunction, injustice and tribalism. Playwright Kate Reid has managed to locate the most personal of the political without compromising either in her script which runs with pace and intrigue thanks to Gabriella Bird’s sensitive and clever direction. Never veering into lecture or polemic, but giving outrages their rightful airing, 4th Country is one of the most powerful dramatic experiences I’ve enjoyed for years; and the first time I’ve not just teared-up but wept without respite in a theatre, despite the detachment normally afforded by my critic’s pen and notebook. So moved was I by this wonderful work, that I needed a good five minutes in my seat to compose myself before exiting the theatre.
Yet thanks to the range of its 4-handed cast, with an exceptional and award-worthy performance by Rachael Rooney (Niamh), and the deftness of the play’s construction, we are in no way subjected to a grim or miserable evening out. Reid has written, and Bird locates in her direction, fast-paced satire, domestic comedy and a compelling sense of the absurd that is entirely warranted without feeling gimmicky. At the same time, it is impossible to consider the wrongs inflicted on both men and women within Northern Ireland and not feel the sorrow, rage and frustration of continuing tragedy.
Aoife Kennan (Anna/Shona) opens the action with a sharp performance as a Stormont civil servant – fast-talking, short-tempered and quick-witted – opposite her new intern, Melanie, played skilfully by 4th Country’s author Reid. We are introduced to the world, masterfully, with essential exposition and subtle foreshadowing arriving through the lightest of touches. In its pacing of political workplace back-and-forth, I was reminded of the best of Aaron Sorkin in his prime, only better.
Cormac Elliott delivers fulsomely on the complexities of his role as Conor Fitzgerald, brother of Niamh (Rachael Rooney); he conveys both levity, intelligence and likeability but is three-dimensional and imperfect. Reid has written rounded characters and placed them in both dramatic and comic circumstances with whom we travel in an unapologetically theatrical construct. Reid’s voice is unique: it does not bellow like Sean O’Casey’s nor goof like Graham Linehan’s, but it takes us on a funny and sad emotional journey all of her own. Reid is also a fine actor but as a writer, she provides a showcase in which her co-star Rachael Rooney can shine and shine she does. Appealing but quarrelsome, exasperated but measured, Niamh is placed in more than one impossible situation (as is Melanie). Rooney embodies and conveys this complexity one moment at a time in a truthful and transcendent performance.
Any description of 4th Country’s plot risks spoiling its impact. This is a play about some of what you know about Northern Ireland, but, set very recently, it is not a Troubles story per se. In part, this is a play about who gets to tell stories and how they are framed. But it is also a story about how the gravest of harms can arise both from systemic malevolence and a kind of everyday plodding indifference.
Review by Mary Beer
Set in Derry-Londonderry, The 4th Country tackles Northern Ireland’s complex politics and history, from Bloody Sunday to abortion laws; for Niamh and Conor, life in Northern Ireland is miles away from the stereotypes of leprechauns, Riverdance and whiskey. As an overworked Department of Health grapples with the fallout of a woman’s death, they discover her connection to those who died in the Bloody Sunday massacre. Meanwhile, Conor and Niamh lock horns over the morality of his lawyer fiancée’s role in defending a man who bears some responsibility. Even in 2019, Niamh and Conor can still never quite escape the echoes of their family’s violent past.
Directed by Gabriella Bird
Written by Kate Reid
Set and costume design by Jida Akil
Lighting design by Catja Hamilton
Design by Rebecca Pitt
Sound design by Hugh Sheehan
Stage manager Chloe Stally-Gibson
Production manager Tabitha Piggott for eStage
Cover stage manager Aida Bourdis
Photographer The Other Richard
Producer Ellie Fitz-Gerald
Cormac Elliott, Aoife Kennan, Kate Reid, Rachael Rooney
Plain Heroines and Park Theatre present:
The 4th Country
A look into life in modern Northern Ireland and who should tell its stories
Written by Kate Reid | Directed by Gabriella Bird
12 January – 5 February, Park Theatre, Park90