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A CurtainUp Berkshires Review
A Rat in the Skull
By Elyse Sommer
Hutchinson's four characters represent the factions in the protracted violence that erupted into numerous bombings and civilian casualties. Shaped as a police interrogation drama but with more lengthy monologues than the action typical for the genre, Rat premiered in 1984 at The Royal Court Theatre in London -- twelve years after Sunday, Bloody Sunday (the Civil Rights parade that led to a period of strife and bloodshed that made "The Troubles" an international media event); a year before an Anglo-Irish Agreement was signed and fourteen years before the Belfast Agreement.
The opening of Berkshire Theatre Festival's revival eerily coincided with news of a second bombing attempt in London, just two weeks after more than fifty Londoners were killed in subway and bus explosions set off by suicide bombers -- even though an estimated 4.2 million closed circuit television cameras are installed across Britain and the average Briton crosses the line of sight of a security camera an estimated 300 times each day. This unanticipated timing works both for and against this production's resonance.
To some, the return to a period when the headlines about the unsettling conflict in Northern Ireland will seem timelier than ever in view of our current issues with terrorism. Others will see it as a case of art overshadowed by real life. Though religion was also a factor for terrorists like Rat in the Skull's Roche and horrendous as their bombings were, Mr. Hutchinson's faction can't possibly have the gut-level impact of facing the very real fallout from the zealotry of today's suicide bombers. The large, lit-up photos of the captured terrorist leave no doubt as to the "expert tactics" employed by Nelson, the Northern Ireland Constabulary who's been called in to hasten a confession. There's also little doubt that Roche, the terrorist, is guilty. The real investigation is into into the long-standing attitudes (the rat in each man's skull! ) that have scarred both these opposite sides of the fence Irishmen (Nelson's wounds being less visible but even more complex than Roche's) and that have made the British "coppers" mistrust and disdain all "Paddies" or Irishmen. t
The projected images of Roche seem tame in comparison to prisoner abuse images and news stories about Americans actually mistreating political prisoners or " outsourcing" such investigations to countries without qualms about torture. Still, the playwright's take on the darker side of the Northern Irish "Troubles" draws a powerful group portrait of four men symbolizing all viewpoints. Rat in the Skull is not an easy play to watch, not just because of its darkness, but because the accents (especially Roche's) make much of the passionate language and furious humor hard to grasp and the extended monologues quite taxing.
Whether this twenty-year-old play strikes you as more or less relevant than ever, you've got to admire Berkshire Theatre Festival for tackling serious plays in an environment normally associated with lighter, more uplifting summer entertainment -- as well as invariably bringing an excellent team aboard for a thoroughly professional production.
Jonathan Epstein actually played Detective Inspector Nelson eighteen years ago in Boston, under the direction of Tina Packer of whose Shakespeare & Company he was long a stellar member. He brings more of a mature and wry melancholy than menace to the personally and politically troubled Nelson. It's a compelling performance that would be even more so if director Dennis Garnhum had persuaded him to tone down the decibel level of his rage. Epstein has a fine, fiery sparring partner in Phil Burke.
Malcom Ingram whose work, like Epstein's, is familiar from his many years at Shakespeare & Company, portrays Superintendent Harris as the very model of a jaded bureaucrat. The casting directors at the BBC ought to check out Mr. Ingram next time they're looking for a lead for one of their terrific detective series.
Alexander Dodge has transformed the Unicorn stage into a metaphoric boxing ring. That ring, a raised mesh platform surrounded by the debris left in the wake of the bombing being investigated, is strikingly lit from beneath by lighting designer Matthew E. Adelson. Ultimately, I found the staging uniformly satisfying but the playwright, director and actors' efforts to keep me tensely riveted to my seat only sporadically successful.