The Blue Boy review by Adam Wyeth
Brokentalkers latest project, The Blue Boy, directed and devised by Feidlem Cannon and Gary Keegan, deals with the experiences of men and women who were incarcerated as children in Catholic residential care institutions. The production is a fusion of live performance, music, video footage and recorded interviews from men and women who survived the reformatory and industrial schools.
The work in development project has become an important mandate for The Cork Midsummer Festival, providing a space for companies to showcase their work. While Gary Keegan was keen to point out that The Blue Boy is very much still a work in progress, the deep impression which it made on the Cork audience at the Granary theatre, showed this production is well on its way to becoming a tour de force. Many audience members thanked the creators for making such a potent and poetical piece of theatre.
The stage comprised of six performers in distorted masks, dressed identically in drab, grey school uniforms. Their silence and anonymity becoming at once a strong metaphor for the many children who were kept in these institutions. They sat at desks to the left of the stage, joining two look-alike dummies, the wide-unblinking eyes from the masks giving them a ghostly air. To the right of the stage Gary Keegan read from testimonies, many of the interviews they carried out themselves, which were accompanied by repetitive and minimalist music, deftly played by Sean Miller on keyboard.
While the words from the victims were harrowing to hear, the silent movements from the masked performers expressed a terror beyond words. Sensitively choreographed by Eddie Kay, the violent, suicidal gestures revealed the dark nightmares and abuse that the children suffered daily under the hands of priests and nuns. One movement comprised of a masked performer taking to the centre of the stage, and signing the lyrics to a song as it played. Beginning with subtle jolts of the body, as the song went on the movements became bigger, more raw, violent and obtrusive. The sign language became less about the song lyrics and more about conveying the horror of abuse and of not being heard.
Although there was huge support for performance, some audience members were not as taken by the production. One lady, who said she lived near one of the institutions mentioned, asked why they did not also show the positive sides to the schools’ To which Gary Keegan sharply replied, ‘We’re still trying to find that.’
Of course this kind of contention is just the response Keegan and Cannon wish to get from their work. They are aware that this subject touches a raw nerve with Irish people, particularly those of an older generation, many of whom it seems would prefer not look at this scandalous chapter in recent Irish history.
The Ryan Report, release in 2009, said testimony had demonstrated beyond a doubt that the entire system treated children more like prison inmates and slaves than people with legal rights and human potential. Among the more extreme allegations of abuse were beatings and rapes, subjection to naked beatings in public, being forced into oral sex and even subjection to beatings after failed rape attempts by brothers. The abuse was said to be endemic in the institutions that dealt with boys and has been described by some as Ireland’s Holocaust.
Cannon and Keegan set up Brokentalkers in 2001, after they both graduated from De Montfort University in Leicester. Based in Dublin, their work responds to the contemporary world - expressing on imaginative levels what can often be hard to articulate - using film, dance, pop culture, original writing and classic texts. Their 2009 production, Silver Stars, based on the real life stories of Irish gay men, performed by a community cast, received rave reviews and toured round the world. The Irish Independent describes Brokentalkers as ‘One of the most exciting emergent voices in Irish theatre.’
Brokentalker’s, The Blue Boy is a strong pieces of theatre and tackles the Irish priest and nuns abuse scandal head on. While it is an emotional experience, the imaginative movement, sound and multi-media create a space for catharsis and become powerful tools to help us absorb these issues on a deeper level than often reportage is capable of doing. Companies such as Brokentalkers demonstrate that art is more than just entertainment, it plays a vital role in understanding ourselves as a society.