Here’s a cross-cultural creation: Ann Henning Jocelyn is a Swede, bilingual, a drama school graduate in Studio 68 who worked with Charles Marowitz and does extensive translation work. Marrying an Irish peer she moved to the West of Ireland: her home Doonregan inspired her to write a play about Ted Hughes’ flight there with his mistress Assia Wevill, and that ran recently at the Jermyn St Theatre. A bigger project, though, came out of that Connemara home as she became fascinated with the social and psychological problem of the Protestant Anglo-Irish community, and their integration into a modern independent Ireland after the 1920’s rebellion founded a Catholic and independent Republic and pushed them onto the margins of history, and out of their colonial certainties.
This play tries to grasp that difficulty: it is set in one home between 1989 and today, an Anglo-Irish family haunted by the grandmother’s memories of the ‘20s. Its director, Lars Harald Garthe, is Norwegian. It is useful to mention that, because for all its Irish setting the play is haunted by a Nordic spirit, Ibsen and Strindberg in particular. Indeed its opening, probably deliberately, is downright lugubrious.
We are at a stern brown formal dining-table with a middle-aged couple - Maev Alexander and Cornelius Garrett - and a titled matriarch Lady Eliza, played by Elaine Montgomerie with a cut-glass English accent. The fourth member of the family is the sullen teenage Titania, in gumboots. Old Lady Eliza deplores her lack of polish despite having been sent over the water to Cheltenham Ladies’ College, and the fact that Trinity College Dublin turned her down even though “Her ancestors practically built the place”. The parents seem unusually determined that Grandma shouldn’t tell Titania the family history.
So she puts it in a letter, before dying, and in a well-crafted dramatic monologue we hear how in January 1922, when she was eleven, the old family seat in Tipperary was set ablaze by rebels under the local IRA command, her pet dog and war-hero brother killed in front of her and the family given fifteen minutes to save a few art treasures and run for shelter in the village.
The rest of the play illustrates the lingering Catholic-Protestant class divide, with the mother (finely played by Maev Alexander) unwilling even to let the coffin-maker step inside the house to collect his fee. Titania jeers at this as any modern teenager would and should, then promptly gets pregnant by a local farmer, succumbs to depression, dumps little Aoife and Cahal on her parents and goes to London to shack up with an American investment banker and come back all shrill and killer-heels five years later, having replaced her ancestors’ careless scorn of Paddies with a general contempt for Ireland in general, and for her parents. Who, of course, have gradually become part of village life, sent the kids to the nuns’ school and given up fretting about the end of 800 years of domination. Which is, indeed, the norm of modern Ireland. Dinosaur grandees who “don’t mix” do exist, and Henning Jocelyn has clearly explored their attitudes with a foreigner’s refreshing eye. But one must wonder how useful it actually is to underline their ‘plight’.
There are twists and turns in the plot as Titania throws her yuppie weight around, and a resolution twelve years on. The second half is better than the first, though heavily overloaded with messages about reconciliation. But what utterly baffles is the absence of any reference, in conversation, to the Troubles raging through that period a hundred miles to the north: the bombings, the ceasefires, the Orange parades, the Good Friday agreement. How any family with a TV - or even a newspaper - can spend the 1990s agonizing about Them and Us without acknowledging that is a mystery.