MURDER, RAPE AND GENOCIDE – THE ENGLISH IN IRELAND
We should tip our hat to the Shaw Festival for producing Edith Wharton’s The Shadow of a Doubt, a second-rate play that we may never have another opportunity of seeing. But the production of Helen Edmundson’s The Clearing deserves a standing ovation. It is a remarkable play covering the fate of Ireland in the hands of the English during the rule of the puritans under Olver Cromwell in the 1650’s and beyond. The Irish suffered murder, rape and genocide at the hands of the English conquerors whose ultimate goal was the extermination of the Irish whom they did not consider as human beings.
It is 1652 and the English under Oliver Cromwell have reconquered Ireland. The play focuses on two English families who are well-off landowners in Ireland. We know that they are conquerors and therefore they are tainted. Cromwell wants to punish all Irishmen who resisted his conquest and all Englishmen who fought for King Charles II against the Puritan forces during the civil war. Punishment can mean execution or exile from their lands to the desert-like Connaught, Ireland.
The two English families are Solomon (David Alan Anderson) and Susaneh (Sharry Flett) Winter, and Robert (Kelly Wong) and Madelaine Preston (Bahareh Yaraghi). Sir Charles Sturman (Tom Rooney) has been sent from England to mete out punishment as stated above. Solomon Winter fought for King Charles; Robert Preston is married to an Irish woman. Both families are targets for Sturman to be deprived of their land and sent to Connaught.
The Prestons had just had their first child. They are a loving couple with their servant Killaine (Ryann Myers) whom they consider part of their family. The men approach Sturman and attempt to get exempted from the brutal exile that is imminent. But Winter deserves to be hanged because he fought for the king, according to Sturman. Preston is married to a Catholic Irish woman who has gone to mass. They deserve to be punished. Sturman proves to be vicious and merciless and so racist against the Irish that he believes that Irish corpses have been found with tails. The Irish are devils incarnate and do not deserve to live.
Killaine is seized and shipped to the West Indies as a slave, “indentured servant” according to Sturman. The Prestons grow apart and Robert tries to save his skin by denouncing his wife. It is the ultimate betrayal and an act of absolute and unforgiveable cowardice.
The play has a Tory, the name given to Irish freedom fighters. Pierce (J.J. Gerber) despises the English. He loved Madelaine once but he considers her and all the Irish who have relations with the English as poisoned and harbours nothing but hatred for them.
This is a gripping drama with riveting performances by an outstanding cast. Rooney as Sturman stands for cool, methodical and relentless evil. He believes that he represents God the good and the others are instruments of Satan. He tries to help Robert after humiliating him and makes him seek contrition for his marrying a Catholic. Robert denounces his wife.
Wong and Yaraghi start as a loving couple who enjoy their newborn son and the joys of youth until he turns betrayer of all that is decent and he rejects her. Outstanding performances. Anderson as Solomon and Sharry Flett as Susanah cannot comprehend the enormity of the evil facing them but they do come to terms with the inevitable. As Protestants, they are not sent into exile and need only pay a fine. But Killaine, an Irish servant to an Englishman is arrested, driven almost insane and put on a transport ship to her certain death. Myers gives a deeply moving performance as she faces her inevitable fate.
The costumes by Asa Benally suggest Purina garb. Pierce’s costume, I assume, represents what the Tories wore .
Again, give a standing ovation for both the choice of play and the production itself.
The play is performed in the Jacke Maxwell Studio Theatre, a theatre-in-the-round with its attendant difficulties concerning a set. The Clearing has almost none except a table and some chairs. Fair enough but director Carmichael brings a few quirks of her own. Instead of letting the actors get off before the next scene begins, she decides to overlap the exits and entrances which struck me as unnecessary and perhaps even confusing. Aside from that she directs a taut, dramatic and moving performance that leaves you breathless and furious with the genocidal English.
A splendid night at the theatre.
The Clearing by Helen Edmundson continues until October 2, 2023, at the Jackie Maxwell Studio Theatre at the Shaw Festival, Niagara-on-the-Lake, Ontario. www.shawfest.com.