The Bruce in Ireland

“A truce is a truce, but war is war,” we’re told early on in Ben Blow’s history play focusing on the all-too-forgotten consequences of Robert the Bruce’s victory over the English army at Bannockburn. Yes, “Proud Edward’s Army” was sent “homeward to think again,” and the two monarchs agreed not to cross into either’s territory during the next 12 months. But there was another Edward to consider – the young brother of Robert the Bruce.

Director Kolbrun Bjort Sigfusdottir is clearly out to highlight the contemporary relevances of these medieval events; we see guns rather than swords, and relatively modern military uniforms while “off-stage” battles are suggested through a montage of Pathé-style newsreels.

Like the best Shakespearian villain, Gerry Kielty as Edward Bruce is someone you can’t not look at while he’s on stage, which is for most of this new production by Edinburgh-based Black Dingo Productions. Kielty has the swagger, the energy, the mojo. His philosophy is simple, though: the only reality is power – and you either take it or live under it. Given his early sniping at the new King of Scots, this Edward clearly has no intention of living under the power of his brother.

So, in the name of opening up another front in the momentarily paused war against England, Robert agrees for Edward and his troops to “liberate” Ireland from English rule. There’s just one problem; Ireland is “a land with more kings than counties,” some of whom clearly prefer the English Edward in faraway London to the Scottish Edward who’s soon burning Ulster to the ground and slaying its people. His decision to claim the (“fairy-tale”) title of “High King of Ireland” goes down almost as badly as Edward’s plain assertion that “Your war is mine now.”

One by one, we see Edward’s closest soldiers and allies injured and killed, though it is left to the singing milkmaid Failtrail, who becomes Edward’s consort, to underscore the point: that every form of violence and torture the Irish had taught themselves to fear from the English have instead come from their so-called Scottish “deliverer”.

A totally believable Kirsty Eila McIntyre as Failtrail offers a deliberately lone female voice of reason in this otherwise testosterone world, with most of the cast (bar Kielty) doubling up as required. Director Kolbrun Bjort Sigfusdottir is clearly out to highlight the contemporary relevances of these medieval events; we see guns rather than swords, and relatively modern military uniforms while “off-stage” battles are suggested through a montage of Pathé-style newsreels.

Tom Oakes’ immersive soundscape harshly underscores the action, although arguably the most effective aspect of the production is having the stage covered in straw and mud. It’s a bog through which all of the cast constantly have to squelch their way; arguably, the sound is a more effective underscore to the action than any of the rear projections of dead crows covered in flies.

The unsubtle elements notwithstanding, this was an effective presentation of a thought-provoking work, from a company that clearly’s developing its own distinctive theatrical voice.

Reviews by Paul F Cockburn

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The Blurb

Bannockburn. The English are defeated. The war goes on.

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