April 25, 2000: Mitchell, The Force of Change

Royal Court Theatre Upstairs

The newly rehabbed Royal Court is open now. It has been a great inconven­ience doing without it all this while, especially since their temporary venue, the Duke of York’s in St. Martin’s Lane, is one of the most cramped, uncomfortable theatres in the West End (but, oh, what great plays we have seen there: The Chairs, for instance, or, earlier, Death and the Maiden). The new Upstairs is a very small but nicely designed theatre with what seem to be movable seats, on the plan of the Barbican Pit: a steep rake, not stalls but upholstered benches; the same as the Donmar. Capacity about 75.

Force of Change is the most gripping play I have seen in an age. The characters are several members of the Royal Ulster Constabulary (RUC) and two criminals, one petty, the other middle range. One of the RUCs is a woman; another, David, is a ruthless dealer with the terrible facts of current life; another, Mark, just does his job; still another, Bill, is a sellout to the right-wing Protestant faction to whom he is indebted (literally, he owes them money, or, conversely, they have bought him). The woman, Caroline Byrne, is up for promotion, but likely to be passed over, as once before, because she is a woman.

Not just a good cop–bad cop play, however, though that’s the basis for it. The play centers on the question of how best to survive in these terrible troubles (the play is set just slightly in the future, in May 2000) and at the same time apply the law in the most honest, even-handed, and — and/or — productive way. There are three choices, represented by three characters: (1) Bill, the conscience-stricken but helpless sell-out, who has surrendered to lawlessness, to which for him there is now no alternative; (2) David, who sees the conflict in amoral and entirely practical terms as a personal conflict conducted by means of stark vengefulness and ruthless retaliation; for him, lawbreaking is wrong, not because the rule of law is primary, but because it damages innocent or neutral third parties or, closer to home, his colleagues on the force; (3) Caroline, for whom principle and the rule of law overshadow any other consideration. David and Caroline are similarly adept at questioning and breaking recalcitrant criminals, but when it comes down to bending the law for extra-legal purposes, she demurs.

For this she will, we come to think, be passed over once again. But meanwhile a more pressing situation develops. The radical right fellow Stanley Brown is about to be let go for lack of evidence. Caroline grills him unmercifully, but he maintains a stony silence. But when she leaves the room momentarily, Brown tells Bill to get details of her private life for him — address, telephone number, car registration, her children’s school, and so on — so that he can take personal vengeance on her for her treatment of him. Bill supplies the information, but slips up and lets Brown use his mobile phone. Caroline discovers it on Brown’s person — it rings, inconveniently, in her presence, and the message left on it is from Bill to call home. This tips off the force about Bill’s betrayal of them. Caroline wants to force him out, but David wants to avoid the embarrassment that will result. David and Mark meanwhile rush to arrange transit to a safe house for Caroline’s husband and children.

That leads us to the two final scenes of the play. In the first, Caroline finds herself unable to pursue her intentions with regard to Bill in the face of David’s rigid determination. He delivers a long and extremely effective (and well-written) monologue in which he tells her there is no place on the force for persons like her — it’s “balls” that get the job done, he insists, and not “tits.” She is deeply hurt by this and is almost overcome. David then proceeds to the other detention room, where we see a parallel monologue delivered against Brown. If anything, however slight, happens to Caroline Patterson or her family, David tells him, “I will hold you personally responsible.” He describes what that might entail: four men suddenly coming out of an unmarked car and taking Brown down some dark alley. Four men, David explains — one for each arm and leg — are good enough in the case of a scumbag like you.

The play ends with Caroline giving “Rabbit,” the petty car thief and joy-rider, back his clothes, without extracting from him any useful information about the suspicious persons he stole a BMW for the last time.

So the play has a powerful, intense forward movement, relentless enough to take on a kind of inevitability; it has a similarly clear and powerful rhetorical effect on the audience, reminiscent of Shavian reflexive action: these are the choices, and the personalized, relentless struggle between Catholic and Protestant, RUC and the reactionary forces uppermost in society at large is, it seems, destined to go on and on — unless some alternative can be found. The play has the power to put this dilemma to us meaningfully and convincingly because it never descends to the level of mere ideological abstraction. Its purpose is not to solve the problem but to present it, to reify it in the unmistakable and palpable terms of the present, and ongoing, conflict. It is a topical play, certainly, but not even slightly limited by its topicality. This play will make effective, thought-provoking drama long after the “troubles” have been put to rest. If indeed that day ever comes.

The performances in this six-character play were unexceptionably fine, totally believable. We sat in the first row, at times being able to reach out and touch the actors. We were in the detention room ourselves, and what transpired there was as important to us as to the characters. There was pace, tempo, verve, almost miraculously maintained intensity. Once again, I am stunned by the quality of acting in the London — and, one must add here, to be fair — the Belfast theatre. Night after night it is this way. And the play itself is extremely well written; one can just tell, hearing these finely articulated lines, that Mitchell is a dramatist who really knows how to write scenes, how to write for actors, how to give them believable, eminently playable characters, while at the same time staying with his main idea and working it for all it is worth. That is what fine writing — as opposed to mere “fine writing” — for the theatre really is. The fact that the plot turns on the inopportune ringing of a cell phone (they call them “mobile phones” in the UK) only shows how up-to-date the plotting is. In our two weeks here we have noticed that every third or fourth person is the owner of a cell phone and is using it, constantly. Every theatre now, at the beginning of the performance or in signs posted at the doors and in warnings printed in programs, urges patrons to switch off their mobile phones. It works; not once was a performance interrupted by the telltale electronic beep.


[Running short of time on the eve of our departure tomorrow for Boston and points west, I’m making some brief notes and hoping for some additional time later to expand them.]



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An American Playgoer in London by Joseph Donohue is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International License, except where otherwise noted.

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