The Alternative – where does the power lie, who knows best, will anyone ask let alone listen? (Fishamble’s A Play For Ireland at Lyric Theatre until Sunday 13 October)

Set in an alternative reality where the third Home Rule Bill passed and Ireland remained part of United Kingdom but is now on the cusp of an in/out referendum, The Alternative casts its satirical spell over media, politics and the insecurities and secrets that destroy relationships.

Richard has returned to work a week after his wife’s death to produce the final debate on the eve of the referendum poll. BBC Dublin is hosting the final confrontation between the prime minister (originally from Dublin) and the leader of the Irish Parliamentary Party. Richard’s deputy is put out that he’s muscling in when she’s been covering for him so well. His presenter has an eye on a big job with a commercial competitor.

Oisín Kearney and Michael Patrick capture the frenetic conversations that can precede a live broadcast. The incessant checking. The ever-changing running orders as new snippets of information change scripts. The overly cynical insider conversations with crude shortcuts that are bantered around an office steeped in politics, that would never be shared so gratuitously on air.

Into this pressure cooker walks Richard’s daughter, Grainne. She’s stopped taking the medication that prevents her hallucinating and seeing people and places that are not real. She’s run out of patience waiting for an important conversation with her father.

Maree Kearns’ split level set design provides an upper deck for the private familial drama, overlooking the live broadcast theatre in the public shiny floor studio down below. Saileóg O’Halloran’s costumes pick up on the garish blocks of single colour clothes worn by campaigning politicians. The green crown broach decorating the PM’s bright red dress is a nice touch.

Humorous interstitial videos remind viewers (and the theatre audience) about the history that has brought the island to this important decision point. The audience gasp in shock at some of the familiar Irish players with unexpected contributions to this very British history. Voxpops and news reports show how opinion is divided, and how passions run high on the streets outside the debate.

Given the counterfactual starting point of this play, and Grainne’s glimpses into alternative realities, it’s perhaps not asking a lot for the audience to suspend further disbelief that a TV debate of such national importance could be staffed by such a small team with such undisciplined lines of control, and derailed by the unfolding chaotic incidents.

The pacey production team dialogue on the studio floor sharply contrasts with the family debate, losing some of the show’s energy each time the action ascends the stairs. But director Jim Culleton manages to stitch these two paces together, and incorporates the live camera work without fuss. The atmosphere is authentic: it’s very like the afternoon I sat in the same Lyric Theatre space for a recording of a UTV election debate.

Lorcan Cranitch presents a believably exasperated father figure, struggling to cope with the situations he faces in the realm of home and work. His capable prodigy Hannah is played by Rachel O’Byrne with business-like confidence that falters when dragged into her boss’s family matters. John is hosting Ireland Decides. There’s a touch of Stephen Nolan as he ignores the direction in his earpiece and goes for good TV rather than a fair debate. Rory Nolan creates John as a slick and creepy boychild, a definite villain of the piece.

Karen Ardiff’s Prime Minister is feisty and committed to Remain, while her affable opponent (Arthur Riordan) sways in the breeze, grabbing straws out of the air as he strings together arguments to back up his Leave ideology. The pair are far too polite and considerate to each other during the debate to be realistic. But they parrot familiar lines about taking back control, insular worldviews and bananas with scary conviction.

The Alternative examines the power of the media to shape the theatre of politics, the power of politicians to mix facts with belief to stir up irrational emotion, the power exerted by men to override – and overpower – women in their circle of influence, and the power of a single voice to bring a fresh perspective to a debate.

The young woman labelled as being schizophrenic is perhaps the most rational person on the stage. Grainne is the only person to see more than one option while everyone else flails around trying to implement their single way of solving whatever problem is facing them. She’s also the only person not be asked for an opinion. Maeve Fitzgerald instils a sense of fragility in the character, along with a lucidity as she works through the alternative meanings of the bombshell statement that closes the first act.

Kearney and Patrick won Fishamble’s 30th anniversary competition to write A Play For Ireland. (You can read/listen to my interview with Michael Patrick in an earlier blog post.) Their playful counterfactual uses referendum concepts and lexicon – familiar from both Scotland’s indyref and the EU vote – to open up a conversation about who knows what is best for the people of Ireland, whether those who represent us actually listen to our views before making decisions, and ultimately where power lies in a society swayed by soundbite.

Well worth tracking down one of the remaining tickets for this impressive production before The Alternative finishes its run in the Lyric Theatre on Sunday 13 October.

Cross-posted from Alan in Belfast.


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