British Festival Theatre Company

at the Neo-Futurarium

“I am going to break you,” the interrogator says to the prisoner. The interrogator could be German, Japanese, Russian, Afrikaans, FBI. The prisoner English, Jewish, Zulu, African American, Bosnian. The techniques for extracting information have changed little since the days of the Inquisition. Also unchanged is the situation’s promise of exciting conflict. With the utterance of that one simple sentence the game is on, and no matter who the adversaries may be, we watch in fascination to see who will triumph.

The prisoner in Ron Hutchinson’s Rat in the Skull is Michael Patrick De Valera (“Demon Bomber”) Roche, an alleged IRA terrorist. The interrogator is Detective Inspector Nelson, a veteran griller on the verge of burnout and, coincidentally, a Protestant Irishman from the Orange counties. “I am going to break you,” he announces quietly to the smirking Roche, and for the better part of an hour he attempts to insinuate doubt into Roche’s resolve–to introduce a “rat in the skull” that will erode Roche’s loyalty to his cause. This process begins with the standard aspersions regarding Roche’s parentage and sexual proclivities, but later Nelson delves into the injustices–some of them dating back to the 16th century–that have perpetuated the violence and factionalism of their homeland. A preposterous diatribe against the sacred Eamon De Valera shakes his namesake out of his silence, and the two men argue their interpretations of history with a passion so intense that young Constable Naylor, present to see that no brutality occurs, begins to suspect both of them are bonkers. Eventually, realizing their mutual love for their shattered country, interrogator and prisoner achieve a sort of bonding, after which Roche agrees to sign a confession.

But why, when it’s all over and Naylor has been dispatched to fetch a cup of tea, does Nelson also break, attacking Roche and beating him so severely as to invalidate the entire interrogation and guarantee the suspect’s release? Superintendent Harris, anxious to wrap up the incident neatly and quickly, suggests personal animus on Nelson’s part–his wife has recently left him for a southern Irish lover. Constable Naylor shrugs–when did any Irishman ever need a reason to fight?

The history of Ireland, like that of other chronically warring countries, is complex to a degree that boggles most Americans’ minds, so great is the contrast with our relatively serene past. Fighting, like fucking, being of more interest to the participants than to spectators, the events and personalities cited by Nelson and Roche to justify their enmity will most likely be lost on audience members not similarly obsessed with ancient Irish feuds. Then too, Hutchinson has written the play in a blend of Celtic lyricism and Belfast street argot nearly impossible to follow without the aid of a glossary. Finally, the characters’ various dialects–though meticulously researched and impeccably reproduced–also slow our comprehension substantially.

So, if we’re only dimly aware of the history leading to the confrontation onstage and only partly cognizant of the cerebral sparring match passing so swiftly before us, what keeps our attention riveted for an hour and 40 minutes (with no intermission)? “I am going to break you,” one man says to another, and we await the outcome of the struggle of two wills, each seeking to dominate the other. This cast, under the direction of Alan Paterson, embrace their roles with a prodigious skill and concentration that keeps the energy crackling throughout; they make the wait considerably more compelling than Hutchinson’s analysis demands. Outstanding performances come from David Mitchell Ghilardi as the icily menacing Nelson, Paul E. Mullins as the baby-faced fanatic Roche, Brian Kolb as the priggish Naylor, and Laren Wilks as the steely Harris. Even if you agree with Naylor that the entire Emerald Isle should be sunk into the sea “so we can all have some peace,” there is considerable pleasure in watching these talented young actors display their expertise in this small gem of a production.