Review: Borderland

Andrew Doyle's Borderland is an intriguing, sometimes terrifying and thoroughly human exploration of conscience and consequence against a dark, dingy backdrop where the substance, despite swearing and violence, is more psychological than physical. It's a series of firsts: a writing debut for Doyle in the mid noughties, when it was originally produced, it is now also a producing debut for the newly formed, Belfast-based Soda Bread Theatre Company, and an Irish premiere in the Waterfront Hall Studio.

Co-directors and stars Michael Condron and Gerard McCabe play respective brothers Ciaran and Sean. Based in Derry-Londonderry, they act as delivery men to the paramilitary, a business that has gone stale with the peace process putting their clients under pressure.

Their accommodation is "not at all hospitable", and to be frank, neither are they. They look more like slackers entrapped in and embracing perpetual student hood than men who can be trusted to deliver any sort of package.

Yet, thanks to Doyle, Condron and McCabe, our point-of-view is as empathetic as it is pitiful. Even during recent economic booms, if your business pays poorly or takes a terrible downturn, heaven help you, and the haves and have nots gap can feel drastically wider than it actually is. In Borderland it is so to the point where Ciaran and Sean live on Chinese takeaways (like the Ghostbusters before they got their first paid job) and suck from the sports caps of their drinking bottles like teats (at least Ciaran does).

Sean's sly, knowing grins don't disguise a lack of wisdom. He doesn't even know what analogies are. Yet, as far as calmness goes, he's still way ahead of his more highly strung brother, who waxes pseudo-philosophically about the fear of disappearing and the shame of having nothing to do. Condron smartly expresses an open sadness and a quietly resigned acceptance of a lifestyle that part of him wants to change but another part seems all too ready to accept. What else does wearing an "I Scored In The '80s" T-Shirt suggest other than someone who is stuck in the past? Neither Ciaran nor Sean have any great goals, and Sean is probably right when he says that Ciaran's blather is "not entertaining". But in finding substance through the lost art of basic conversation, the play definitely is.

Borderland takes the first of two slight detours when the brothers' last errand arrives on their doorstep. Incidental music and the use of a background screen heightens eerie atmosphere and details transitional steps for both characters, as the opening of a box raises the paranoia of one and the already barely-disguised selfishness of the other. The internal drama of the play is heightened through more open, physical acting, shining through in the earnest and lively graft of Condron and McCabe. The importance of being earnest is well illustrated, you might say.

The final act that Ciaran and Sean must face is a dynamic and psychological terror around the human object of their fears, a mysterious, hooded "man with a hammer" (Philip Rafferty). In the context of Borderland, this masked individual is less a human than a device for the brothers' battles with their consciences, and in doing so raises the dramatic stakes even further for Ciaran and Sean. The former is a coward driven to violence for the sake of protecting himself, the latter uses a façade of uncaring machismo to mask his own troubling lack of confidence with serious confrontations. Maybe, then, the ferocity and even the borders themselves are but a backdrop – is this a "borderland", or a borderline personality battle?

Simon Fallaha

Borderland played at the Waterfront Hall, Belfast, on Friday 19 and Saturday 20 January. For more information on the newly formed Soda Bread Theatre Company, check them out on Facebook.

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