When Brian Friel’s The Freedom of the City premiered in Dublin in 1973, for Irish audiences it must have been like staring into the heart of a gaping wound. It was only a year after Bloody Sunday, the infamous day when British forces opened fire on a crowd of unarmed protesters in Derry, killing 14. Friel’s play isn’t about that event, but a similar fictional one; it’s a way to observe the historical equivalent of a solar eclipse without being blinded by it.
At a civil-rights demonstration turned nasty, three marchers duck inside the first door they find to escape choking gas released by British troops. It just so happens to lead to the mayor’s parlor in the Derry Guildhall—the seat of colonial power in the city. The three strangers banter and bristle over generous pours from the gleaming liquor cabinet. There’s Michael (James Russell), a self-righteous young idealist; Lily (Cara Seymour), an exhausted mother of 11; and Skinner (Joseph Sikora), a vagrant and gambler. Meanwhile, the British Army is massing outside, convinced that the Guildhall has been seized by armed terrorists.
Friel sets his little elevator play in a larger sociopolitical context: We hear from various power players dealing with the fallout, plus a professor giving a lecture on “the culture of poverty.” This bifocal perspective immediately clues you in to what this is all about—unsuspecting everymen caught in the gears of history, transmuted by gunfire from flesh and blood to fiery symbols.
Ciarán O’Reilly’s production for the Irish Rep is outstanding, from Charlie Corcoran’s minutely detailed set design to the performances by the central trio—particularly the puckish, electric Sikora. But beneath the strata of sociopolitical import, Freedom is dramatically stagnant, little more than slightly charged pub chatter passing between our accidental martyrs. You could almost call it Much Ado About Nothing, if that nothing didn’t ultimately come to mean so much.—Jenna Scherer