STAGE STRUCK

The the­atre is not a court­room, says Peter Craw­ley

The Irish Times - Friday - The Ticket - - OPINION -

PER­HAPS THE stage ought to carry a le­gal dis­claimer; some­thing like the movie in­dus­try’s “Any re­sem­blance to real per­sons, liv­ing or dead, is purely co­in­ci­den­tal.”

It’s un­likely that this would have saved one of the stars of An­glo: The Mu­si­cal from the chop, a pup­pet replica of for­mer An­glo Ir­ish Bank chief Seán Fitz­Patrick, which was dropped from the show fol­low­ing le­gal ad­vice. It would have been an ap­pro­pri­ately satir­i­cal way for the pro­duc­ers to cover their as­sets, but solic­i­tors for Fitz­Patrick felt that it might prej­u­dice the crim­i­nal case against him if we saw him por­trayed as a gi­ant, singing mup­pet.

The pro­duc­ers of the show im­me­di­ately com­plied. But couldn’t they have just changed his name?

Take the case of Johnny Sil­vester. Ten years ago, lawyers at the Moriarty Tri­bunal be­came hugely con­cerned with this char­ac­ter, the dis­graced for­mer taoiseach in Se­bas­tian Barry’s play Hin­ter­land, who has a sus­pi­ciously amassed for­tune, a taste for ex­pen­sive Parisian shirts and a gos­sip-colum­nist mis­tress. Any re­sem­blance to Charles J Haughey seemed purely in­ten­tional.

Haughey’s lawyers re­quested the script and at­tended a per­for­mance. The Abbey braced it­self. Noth­ing hap­pened.

Can you get around li­bel laws if “only the names have been changed”? Prob­a­bly not. But this raises an­other ques­tion: Why put real and recog­nis­able fig­ures on­stage?

The most per­sua­sive an­swer, as Ham­let will tell you, is re­venge. In his most elab­o­rate scheme, the prince recre­ates his fa­ther’s murder on­stage be­cause he’s heard that guilty crea­tures at a play have “been struck so to the soul that presently/they have pro­claim’d their male­fac­tions”. (To this day, Shake­spear­ian schol­ars still won­der why Claudius’s lawyers never re­quest the script.)

But Ham­let is hardly the only the­atre maker to have en­gaged in such wish­ful think­ing. An in­trigu­ing and prob­lem­atic ex­am­ple is Donal O’Kelly’s new play, Ailliliú Fion­nu­ala, about the Shell Cor­rib gas project. A fic­ti­tious treat­ment of a real sub­ject, com­bin­ing myth and imag­i­na­tion, it also in­volves the real case of Wil­lie Cor­duff, who was al­legedly as­saulted dur­ing a peace­ful protest. The cir­cum­stances around that event are still trou­blingly un­con­firmed, but O’Kelly’s play imag­ines eye­wit­ness tes­ti­mony and even an ad­mis­sion of cul­pa­bil­ity. It’s hard to imag­ine any Shell ex­ec­u­tive in the house be­ing struck to the soul.

With­out con­sult­ing le­gal ad­vice, my guess is that it’s a sign – in all cases – of in­tense frus­tra­tion. When real an­swers are end­lessly de­layed or jus­tice is stub­bornly elu­sive, we be­gin to imag­ine them.

Satire, af­ter all, turns the­atre into a sort of court­room, with­out the coun­ter­bal­ance of de­fence, con­firm­ing our dark­est sus­pi­cions. That isn’t jus­tice, though. That’s a show trial. Case closed. pcraw­ley@irish­times.com

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