The 4th Country review – three’s a crowd in confused Northern Ireland drama | Theatre


The title of The 4th Country presumably refers to the perceived hierarchy of the constituent nations of the UK: Ulster loyalists and nationalists find rare agreement in believing that Westminster governments prefer the English, Scots, and Welsh.

Problematically, though, writer Kate Reid might have used the subtitle: Three Plays. In 80 minutes, she crams “Soldier F”, the only British army member to be charged with killing civil rights marchers during Derry’s Bloody Sunday in 1972; the outlawing of abortion in Northern Ireland for 51 years after it was legal in Great Britain; and the suspension of the devolved assembly at Stormont from 2017-20.

Through a web of connections between lovers, siblings, and officials, the play forces all these issues into one story. But there is an editorial problem with the apparent equivalence given to the legacy of the Troubles and the lack of fertility rights. While the former is a consequence of British colonialism, Westminster long attempted liberalising interventions on abortion that were resisted by Northern Irish politicians. It may have suited all parties to have the 2019 law change effectively imposed from London, as even pro-choicers in Sinn Féin were nervous of resistance from their Catholic demographic. In those complexities of British rule, there might have been a bigger and more coherent play.

The triple narrative also ambitiously switches between sharp naturalistic dialogue and Brechtian disruptions in which actors turn against each other and the script, ultimately questioning if drama is adequate to the material or the bald facts are stronger. This manoeuvre is increasingly common in political shows but feels like a cleric stopping mid-sermon to say that a brisk walk might do the congregation more good than church.

A third star is earned by perky, versatile performances from Reid, Rachael Rooney, Aiofe Kennan and Cormac Elliott. Each switches roles, with Kennan fluently moving between Derry dialect and two precise gradations of English posh, encouraging the audience to reflect on the conclusions we draw from vocal identities, but the play’s own tone is too diffuse and confused.

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