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Rat In The Scull - 1995

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by Ron Hutchinson
Directed by Stephen Daldrey
The Royal Court Theatre Productions
London, UK
First performance of this production
at the Duke of York's Theatre
as part of the Royal Court Classics Season
5 October 1995



John Castle........Harris
Tony Doyle........Nelson
Pearce Quigley.......Naylor
Rufus Sewell.........Roche

Designer- William Dudley
Lighting Design- Rick Fisher
Music - Stephen Warbeck
Sound Design- Paul Arditti

Photo - Eric Richmond
Cover Design: Paradigm & The Loft

15 October 1995
by John Peter

Ron Hutchinson's 1980's play about the factions dividing Northern Ireland is still grippingly relevant, says John Peter.
Anyone feeling either sanguine or pessimistic about the Northern Ireland peace process this morning should remember to book tommorrow to see Ron Hutchinson's RAT IN THE SKULL, ( Duke of York's ) : the former to understand how far that process still has to go, the latter to have their pessimism chrushingly confirmed - which is what political or any other pessimists usually are.

Hutchinson's stunning, ruthless, hard-nosed and deeply compassionate play ......gives you a terrifying glimpse into the souls of two hostile tribes, but also into the mind of the British, colonists and exploiters turned policemen and peacekeepers. The play takes place in a London police station where an IRA suspect ( Rufus Sewell ) had been beaten up by a RUC detective Inspector ( Tony Dole ) flown over from Belfast to interview him. The action is really a flashback, punctuated by the furious questions of Detective Superintendent Harris ( John Castle ), on whose patch the incident took oplace, and the terrified excuses of PC Naylor ( Pearce Quigly ) who, contrary to regulations, left the two men alone.

The play is both a police thriller and a psychological dissection. At its heart is a confrontation between two raging obsessions. What cause is there in nature that makes these hard, bigoted men. obsessed with the past, with age-old grievances, and their ghastly symbolism? To an Ulster Protestant, keeping the taigs underfoot is the continuation of insecurity by other means. To an Ulster Catholic, terrorism is freedom of choice by other means. Meanwhile the British observe things with distaste or despair, according to their level of intelligence or moral conscience. As Harris sagely observes: "Scratch them and they're all paddies underneath."

Stephen Daldry's direction is a masterpiece of steady, stomach tighteningly rising tension. The stalls and the stage have been gutted: a high platform with a chair in the middle represents the interview room, with steel gangways around it; the audience sits on either side looking up, and in the circles looking down. ( Designer: William Dudley )

Sewell plays the prisoner, Michael Patrick de Valera Roche, like a shrewd, agile, wary animal, scared and concerned, but by no means defeated, Roche understands the enemy's body language, what it means when the other man suddenly turns towards him or slowly and deliberately takes off his blazer; and he knows that the other man knows that he knows. Under Doyle's barrage of intimidation, Sewell gives a performance of silent terror the like of which I have seldom seen; a portrait of fear scored across by a desperate determination not to be, let alone seem afraid. Hutchinson never pretends that Roche is innocent; and Sewell underlines this by his casual, almost boyish swagger.

Doyle's Nelson is a hunter pursued by ghosts, a torturer tortured by public and private obsessions. His face is bruised by anger and hatred; when he talks about "The grammar of hate", you can see that he is a master of the entire language. Doyle knows that Nelson is not simply a bigoted villain; he is a steward of a resentful, insecure civilization, but he is also waery of its gastly rituals of hatred, defiance and righteousness, of bowler and the gun. The tragedy of these two men, and of their land, is that they need each other to justify their history and their obsessions. In the end, they both want the young policeman to go and fetch them a cup of tea so that they can be alone together and do what has to be done.

I did not see the play when it was first produced at the Royal Court in 1984 and I do not know whether Hutchinson has changed anything for this production, the first of the six-month season of the Royal Court Classics at the Duke of York's. I hope he has not -- in which case it has stood the test of time. The best proof of this, and the blackest of the plays ironies, lies in the characters of the two policemen. Young Naylor knows, but does not quite understand the situation. He is ignorant of the grammar of hate; he simply does not like Irishmen and worries about his promotion. Harris, on the other hand, speaks with the voice of exasperated authority. To him, both Prods and Papists are paddies, except that he clearly find Prods more irritating because they have the gall to play the deeply Irish games and yet call themselves British. How history repeats itself! In the other corner we have the great western powers that created Yugoslavia, now they watch impotently as these doomed and incompatible tribes butcher each other, and they are horrified that these peoples call themselves Europeans. Nothing breeds such lofty distaste as your own miscalculations. This is one of the harsh political lessons of this blazing, wrathful, compassionate play.

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