Brian Friel’s The Freedom of the City has not been performed in London for more than 30 years and its current revival at the Finborough Theatre has been timed to coincide with the results of the Saville Enquiry into Bloody Sunday due out in 2006.
Inspired by the events that took place on that Sunday in January 1972, it is not only a damning indictment of the findings of the Widgery Enquiry – the first tribunal into the massacre – but moves beyond The Troubles to explore the polemic that terrorists are made and not born and how the innocent and apolitical are inevitably culled in the crossfire of competing ideologies.
Set in 1970s Derry, Ulster, The Freedom of the City focuses on three civil rights protesters, Lily Doherty, Skinner and Michael Hegarty, who after fleeing the tanks and tear gas sent to disrupt their unofficial march from the Bogside find themselves in the mayor’s parlour in the Guildhall – the symbolic heart of the protestant political establishment.
But when the police and army wade in and begin to exaggerate the threat this unarmed rag bag of demonstrators pose, all three end up paying with their lives for being in the wrong place at the wrong time.
Featuring vignettes from a tribunal into the afternoon’s events interspersed with flashbacks to the mayor’s parlour and clips of news coverage from the funeral cortege, all action is presided over by a judge, who remains on stage at all times, and watches while the three are transformed into heroes, martyrs, media statistics and clichd fallen soldiers by the various interested parties.
Claire Cogan is unsurpassable as Lily, a mother-of-eleven living a life of self sacrifice whose reasons for marching have more to do with excruciating poverty and seeking redress for her disabled son, than religious equality. “I don’t care that much for speeches – I can’t concentrate,” she says of the Civil Rights demo she just attended.
Nick Lee, who plays Michael, is also excellent as the only genuine activist, who believes resolutely in the means and ends of peaceful protest and justice for all. But it is Richard Flood, playing the wisecracking, hell-raising Skinner, who owns the stage and gives a coruscating performance in an excellent role that sees him play clown, hoodlum and politically astute commentator, capable of dumfounding the others with his compassion and insight.
Patrick Myles also excels himself as the hilarious TV news anchor with his faux solemnity and outside broadcaster inflections. Matthew Parish, who plays the balladeer, also turns in a mesmerising performance.
Vicky Jones’ direction of this timely production is superb as is Tshari King’s sound design that engulfs the auditorium with gunfire and warmongering while Anna Jones’ set with its fine cigars, digestifs in the cocktail cabinet and luxurious council robes clearly establishes the dichotomy between the haves and have-nots: “This room is bigger than my whole place,” Lily says in awe as she prattles about family and her “wee’uns.”
Poignant and engrossing in its examination of grave, grave injustices, The Freedom of the City remains as relevant to today as it ever was and you leave with the haunting realisation, that in light of the summer’s terrorist attacks and the shooting of the unarmed Jean Charles de Menzes, that history more often than not repeats itself.