Double Cross – a timely revival of a play about truth and power (Lyric Theatre until 27 October) #belfest2018

We live in a world in which facts, claims, campaigning, opinion, propaganda and falsehoods all blur together into a constant onslaught of billboard, radio, TV, newspaper, social media and verbal messaging.

A meme travels faster than a rumour used to, its objectivity and truthfulness often less valued than its humour and viral spreadability. Emotion and empathy are used to trigger our response, seemingly far more powerful than reasoned and rational argument.

This is not a recent phenomenon. Thomas Kilroy’s recently 1986 updated play Double Cross brings together two troubled Irishmen who dominated the British radio waves during the Second World War.

Onto the stage of the Lyric’s Naughton Studio walks Brendan Bracken, “a trickster” who has risen to the top. The man who merged economic titles to create the modern Financial Times and would become Churchill’s Minister of Information distances himself from his unhelpful family history and his County Tipperary heritage as seeks to keep up civil support for the war effort through snappy slogans and up-beat briefings.

As well as being hounded by his brother, playwright Kilroy gifts the moody Bracken with an unhealthy obsession with his nemesis, William Joyce, better known as Lord Haw-Haw, the voice of an English-language Nazi propaganda radio service that broadcast into the UK from Germany. Black and white video projections onto semi-transparent panels allow both characters to confront each other while an old wireless plays out their words in the background.

Ian Toner plays the two main roles while Charlotte McCurry takes on their partners, strongly challenging Bracken and Joyce’s behaviour and attitude. Sean Kearns plays numerous characters, demonstrating a talent for quickly switching accents and personas. In a later scene, dressed as newspaper publisher Lord Beaverbrook, he visits Joyce in his prison cell and brings the condemned man face-to-face with a commercial rather than political purveyor of disinformation.

The performances are intense throughout, with Toner ably depicting massive swings of emotion while McCurry brings to life two strong women who are not afraid to stand up and stare into the eyes of their needy, sometimes abusive, and often distant partners.

The script is incredibly dense, perhaps not a surprise given the wordy nature of Bracken and Joyce’s jobs, though it is full of rewarding phrases and retorts. Gillian Lennox’s costumes ground the piece in the 1940s yet director Jimmy Fay has ambitiously and successfully combined sound and video content with emotionally-charged live performances to broadcast Double Cross with hi-fi clarity into 21st century western society.

Whether watching Trump’s US Presidential campaign and election to the White House, the EU referendum campaign and the Brexit negotiating that has followed, or even the Renewable Heat Incentive scheme and inquiry, we’re becoming all too familiar with blatant lies, hidden information, conflicting versions of events, inaccurate spin and distracting bluster.

Double Cross certainly deserved to be revived and restaged. Its audience are seated on either side of Ciaran Bagnall’s long and narrow set, as if sitting in judgement, weighing up which of these two versions of England is less evil and more justified.

“Why does the victim always imitate the oppressor?”

Perhaps the most pertinent question they should be asking is one from the script. The danger is that society, the state and journalism react to the spread of falsehoods with equally the outrageous twisting of the truth.

Double Cross continues its run throughout Belfast International Arts Festival at the Lyric Theatre until 27 October, before transferring to its coproduction partner in the Abbey Theatre from 31 October–10 November.

Production shots: Melissa Gordon

Cross-posted from Alan in Belfast blog.