Blood in the Dirt: The past swamps the present in this family fighting saga

Blood in the Dirt: The past swamps the present in this family fighting saga

Lorcan Cranitch in Blood in the Dirt. Photo by Patrick Redmond
Lorcan Cranitch in Blood in the Dirt. Photo by Patrick Redmond

There is plenty of dramatic fury in this debut monologue play from emerging novelist and screenwriter Rory Gleeson. But fury can often produce a fog and there is a thin line between mysteriousness and confusion.

The play opens with Francis Donnelly fighting off an unseen crowd of people from his barn in the dark. Donnelly has a torch and a two-bar heater. An old licence plate discarded in a box reads TN 95; a mobile phone rings and isn’t answered. We know we are in the present in Tipperary. Donnelly is raging against something imprecise and unclear. He is the last of his line and he is under some kind of siege.

During his rages, we get a backstory starting in the 1840s, where his ancestor Jim Donnelly emigrated to Canada and squatted on land in Biddulph, Ontario, that belonged to someone else. Bad blood arose in the neighbourhood and Jim Donnelly got a reputation as a hard-fighting man. Decades later, the family were burned out of Biddulph. One son survived the fire, William Donnelly, and married a local girl from a hostile family, the Carrolls. The family returned to Ireland. These are the ancestors of the current tormented soul, holed up in his Tipperary barn, railing against something unspecified.

The main emphasis is on the historic story set in Canada. There isn’t enough attention paid to the character in the present, and the immediate dilemma causing him to stack bags of animal feed as a defensive wall. We learn very little about his life story. Actor Lorcan Cranitch attempts to counter this absence in the writing with a big physical performance, but there is no real character there in the present. Just a vessel for family history.

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There are many good ideas: the sense of certain families being fighters by nature (the Donnellys), or cowards and weaklings (the Carrolls); the suggestion that “if you give ground, they’ll push you more and more”. Some of the writing has an impressive, caustic lyricism. There are plenty of provocative ideas about violence, and how passive people who cannot stand their ground will simply die in the Canadian snow. But the elements are not pulled into a dramatic shape.

Caitríona McLaughlin directs for Landmark Productions, with emphasis on intensity rather than clarity. Set and lighting by Paul Keogan create an impressive moody barn on the small stage of the New Theatre, using corrugated iron and industrial strip curtains. Despite the buckets of energy Cranitch is throwing at it, this fighting man ain’t winning.

Also this week: Zandra, Queen of Jazz: Extraordinary story of an Irishwoman’s journey through life with a sax

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