Before Monsters Were Made has all the ingredients of a great piece of theatre – and it doesn’t fail to live up its promise. Written by Ross Dungan, one of the most lauded new writers on the Irish scene, and directed by Ben Kidd, this particular show has the backing of the equally fresh and exciting 15th Oak Productions.
The action of the play takes the form of a family drama mixed with elements of crime mystery. It centres on the predicaments of David (Peter Coonan) and his family, residents of a small town in rural Ireland, in the aftermath of the disappearance of a school-girl, about which the local teacher Vincent (Lorcan Cranitch) is rumoured, justly or otherwise, to have crucial information. Vincent is David’s father, vilified and admired alike among members of the town community, and indeed in his own family. Despite his evasive behaviour and apparently divisive effect on other people, however, Vincent seems to have an affectionate and trusting relationship with his granddaughter, Maggie (Zena Donnelly/Ava MccKevitt), and with his wife and former pupil Jackie (Janice Byrne).
There are plenty of plot convolutions that seem to defer the horrible, all-too-predictable revelation at the end of the play to an unnecessary degree. But in fact, these twists and turns are part of the point, and this is one of the main strengths of Dungan’s writing here – the script highlights and shows up the very desire to suspend revelations, to talk ourselves around the truth for fear of what we suspect (or know for certain) will be disclosed.
The controlled fascination with myths we want to believe, rumours we choose to ignore, and the many consequences, in Dungan’s script, is matched by Director Ben Kidd’s adept shifts in pace and atmosphere. The dinner scene in the first act is a good example of this rationale in action; the meandering conversation among family members quickly begins to reek with uneasy digressions and uncomfortable insinuations. Abigail (the excellent Orla Fitzgerald) can move from open frustration to suppressed disdain with barely a change in tone, which we only realise after David’s panicked idiom of contradiction erupts in response. Similarly, in the second act, Graham’s parochialism (played with humour and charisma by Manus Halligan) can seem like brogue-ish slapstick as one scene begins, but finish on a quiet, almost oppressive cadence: his wilful bafflement in the face of the stories he has heard about the local disappearances and the possibility of Vincent playing a part in them.
If the plot progresses episodically, time-hopping between distant, but related moments in the life of the dysfunctional family, the set, too, is designed to be pieced together as the episodes unfold. Chairs and lamps – in the pose of having been discarded casually at the margins of the stage – are constantly replaced and re-ordered by the actors as the scenes take form. The result is that even the furniture feels implicated in the drama of crime and suspicion in which the characters are enmeshed – as the small but essential moment of Vincent closing the piano lid in the penultimate scene suggests.
The overall effect is a kind of tautened dread, which the play as a whole is keen to extend to its limits, and occasionally to release as a whiplash. It’s to the credit of both the cast and the Composition/Design managers that these moments of release are as jolting as the general atmosphere of hypnotic discomfort which otherwise prevails. This is a play about the processes of deferral and denial we employ to get in the way of our seeing things clearly, and saying things honestly. More precisely, in addressing the issue of abuse and violence against children, Dungan seems to suggest, we must also acknowledge the added violation of collective reticence and self-delusion about exactly those crimes.
With the exception of one or two moments of college-boy sarcasm that are at odds with the general tenor of the script and characterisation, this is an intelligent production that is emotionally visceral and dramatically concise. Recommended viewing.
Before Monsters Were Made is running at the Project Arts Centre, Temple Bar.