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The Clearing
by Lizzie Loveridge

People aren't themselves Maddy. It's a strange time. Many have forgotten to smile lately.  
-- Killaine

Timed to coincide with an Irish cinema event, Shared Experience's production of Helen Edmundson's 1993 play The Clearing about Irish history comes to Kilburn's The Tricycle Theatre. Set in the seventeenth century during the only time in England's history when she was a republic, The Clearing is about the cruel treatment meted out in Ireland by those representing Oliver Cromwell's government. Shared Experience, known for their particular brand of physical theatre, largely break with this in a more traditional interpretation of what is largely a historical melodrama. The Clearing was very well received as a new play when it was first produced at The Bush Theatre and comparisons were made between it and Arthur Miller's The Crucible (currently being revived on Broadway). I find these comparisons flawed as the characterisation of Helen Edmundson's play is black and white, the heroine is sweet, righteous and good, the villain as black hearted a villain as Carver Doone. Since Elyse Sommer reviewed a different production of the play in New York, I'll refer you to that review for the plot details and a quite different reaction: The Clearing in New York.

Edmundson's inspiration for the play was the ethnic cleansing in Bosnia. I'm not sure the parallel pans out although the memory of what the Cromwellians did at Drogheda and Wexford is the stuff of Irish patriotic history and folklore. Interestingly, like The Crucible, the motivation is the acquisition of land. The land confiscation in The Clearing is to pay in lieu of wages that owed to Cromwell's army; in The Crucible, the land of those convicted of witchcraft is forfeit and goes to the informer. The central issue is the dilemma of Robert Preston, should he ensure the economic prosperity of his family by betraying his Irish friends (and ultimately his wife) or should he stick by them and risk banishment to inhospitable and difficult to farm Connaught? However Preston comes over not as a man troubled by the decision but as one who saves his own skin first.

Of the excellent performances, Aislin McGuckin stands out as the spirited and feisty Maddy. After reason has failed, she threatens the Governor, Sturman, with Irish witchcraft in a powerful scene. Robert Attlee as the Governor has as much compassion as there are hairs on his bald pate. His is an utterly chilling performance and it is to be hoped that Sturman makes a sticky end when Charles II is restored to the throne in 1660. There are good cameos from Pip Donaghy and, in grey linen and a Puritan bonnet, Amelda Brown, as God fearing Protestants summoned for supporting the Crown in the Civil War. I liked too Mairead McKinley's physical portrait of the highly strung and troubled Killaine who one feels, as Maddy did, will crack under the strain of the long voyage and forced labour. The recounting of her rape at the hands of the soldiers is searing, high poignancy. Joseph Millson's weak husband is two dimensional.

Angela Davies' moody set of a heavy door set in a rough cast wall with the bare branches of a tree is darkly atmospheric. Lighting too adds to the drama. Polly Teale does her directorial best with this play but the end result is less doughty and experiential than that which I have come to expect from Shared Experience. In the end, we know all kinds of atrocities were subjected on the Irish, the Scots, the people of West Africa and many others subjugated by the English, but what does a retelling of these stories do but encourage hatred and intransigence? It doesn't seem to prevent further incidents of brutality perpetrated today. Perhaps the lessons of history are bunkum after all?

Review New York production of The Clearing
The Crucible currently on Broadway

The Clearing
Written by Helen Edmundson
Directed by Polly Teale
With: Richard Attlee, Amelda Brown, Pip Donaghy, Aislin McGuckin, Mairead McKinley, Joseph Millson, Patrick Moy
Design: Angela Davies
Lighting Design: Jason Taylor
Movement: Leah Hausman
Composer: Peter Salem
Running time: Two hours forty five minutes with one interval
Box Office: 020 7328 1000
Booking to 25th May 2002
Reviewed by Lizzie Loveridge based on 24th April 2002 performance at the Tricycle Theatre, 269 Kilburn High Road, London NW6
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