What was on stage last night at the opening performance of No Escape was not drama. There was not a cast in the traditional sense, there was no true playwright. It was truth and it was documentary. Award-winning journalist Mary Raftery was commissioned by the Abbey Theatre to write and produce a work in response to Justice Sean Ryan’s chilling report into child abuse in Ireland’s residential schools. Raftery, instead of ‘writing’ a piece in response gave the audience something different; she gave them the Ryan Report itself. From the outset it is a unique and unsettling event at the National Theatre. The front of house welcome urges the nervous audience to “enjoy the show”, as unlikely as that is.
The first voice you hear is of Lorcan Cranitch, dressed in a neat and dark suit, he resembles a host of a prime time current affairs program, or perhaps an undertaker. In either guise, he has chilling news to deliver. The set is a maze of glass walls and mesh frames. Behind each those who were interviewed by the Commission to Enquire into Child Abuse in Ireland deliver accounts of their experiences of abuse and of outright fear at the hands of theses State and Church run schools. The dimly lit, obscurely visible and somewhat muted accounts resemble a feeling of being in the confession box. The mesh and lack of light protecting the anonymity of those speaking.
Cranitch delivers a roll-call of abuse, a litany of crimes perpetrated against innocent children. Weapons of every conceivable element were used to inflict pain, chastisement and fear into those who were already stripped of innocence or anything resembling a childhood. “If you cried you got worse, so I learned not to cry” recounts a trembling Michelle Forbes. Yard brushes, wooden spoons, horse tackle, garden tools, leather straps, chair legs, crucifixes, not to mention the foot, fist or worse as methods of delivering pain on a daily basis.
Elenor Methven is astounding and all too visceral in her portrayal as she visibly hurts in telling of beatings received and years lost as a child. Jane Brennan, Eamon Hunt, Jonathon White and Donal O’Kelly take on multiple roles from children to priests, nuns, Brothers, inspectors and keep a steady flow and rhythm to Raftery’s documentary account. Yet, one is always acutely aware that these are actors merely relaying words of the true victims. While the acting is never truly in question in this work, it is possibly beyond the repertoire of any actor to faithfully portray the stifling fear and horrific memories that haunt all survivors of abuse to this day. The words of the Ryan Report take centre stage here. “You couldn’t tell anyone, but who would believe you anyway”.
Archive boxes of case files are routinely dropped on stage with the files within exhumed and recounted by Cranitch. A back drop of archive boxes piled to the ceiling provide a sickening irony given that it is the very lack of documented evidence and cover up of cases of abuse that facilitated this climate of fear and culture of abuse.
It was an interesting point as the documentary, as it is not a play, drew to a close. Acts of kindness received by children in these institutions were recounted. However this ‘kindness’ was also tinged with a dark cloud. “That Brother would not shout or beat us as the others did, I’l always remember him for that.” The last action of this piece was an empty stage where Cranitch appeared and dropped the 2,700 page, 6 volume, Ryan Report onto the front and centre of the stage. The deafening thud and nervous silence that followed was a fitting end to this truly unique night at the National Theatre.
As part of “The Drakest Corner” series at the Abbey Theatre, you can meet the makers of “No Escape” at a talk at the Abbey on Thursday 15th April. Tickets 3 Euro. Contact Abbey box office. www.abbeytheatre.ie