In this age of multi-image, special effects, and Robert Wilson, we've have come to accept - even expect - a visual dominance in much of contemporary theater. For the Irish, however, a play is still primarily the province of words. It's only fitting, therefore, that a theater company founded to produce the works of the master wordsmith himself should host a festival of Northern Irish plays. The Boston Shakespeare Company (BSC), recently merged with Shakespeare & Company of Lenox, Mass., opened its series last weekend with a fine production of Thomas Kilroy's ``Double Cross.''
The festival, which runs through May 31, will include staged plays and play readings, workshop productions, symposiums, and a guest appearance by Charabanc, a troupe from Northern Ireland.
Tina Packer, artistic director for the BSC, says this is the first of a planned yearly series that will highlight theater from other English-speaking countries. Northern Ireland, she says, was the natural opening choice. An Englishwoman by birth, Packer says, ``When you talk about the English theater, what you're talking about is Irishmen - Shaw, Sheridan, Beckett, O'Casey.''
This is the American premi`ere for ``Double Cross,'' produced last year in Derry, Northern Ireland, by Brian Friel's Field Day company. Like Mr. Friel's own ``Translations,'' ``Double Cross'' deals with themes of Irish identity, particularly the relationship between cultural betrayal and freedom.
The play concerns two historical Irishmen, Brendan Bracken and William Joyce, who deny their Irishness in a quest for a British ideal. Bracken rose within British ``society'' to become Churchill's Minister of Information during World War II. Joyce became, in the words of the playwright, the ``Minister of Misinformation,'' broadcasting wartime fabrications from Berlin to Britain as the famous ``Lord Haw Haw.'' An American by birth, Joyce carried a British passport and was hanged by the English for treason.
This is a play, to quote the playwright, ``about two men who invent themselves.'' Bracken's transformation is for the sake of his success in English society, to become the ideal Englishman of ``taste.'' Joyce, in his broadcasts, reinvents English society, says the author, ``out of a deep, angry impatience with life as it really is.'' Central to the theme is the Irish-English identity, the love-hate relationship that would have the oppressed adopt the persona of the oppressor; then, in the case of Joyce, commit treason when the reality fails to live up to the ideal.
``Double Cross'' is a literate, intelligent tour de force, in which the flow of words and ideas is fast and furious. The script feeds us proverbs, symbols, and philosophical questions at a barely digestible rate. Quotations from Yeats, Conrad, Kempis, and Churchill seem to be dropped in as naturally as Shakespeare's references to classical lore. In fact, words form both the medium and the message, for it's the Irish gift of language that allows the two men to achieve their double identities.
Symbolically, the three actors play multiple roles. The foppish Bracken and fascist Joyce are portrayed with brilliant attention to detail and accent by Richard McElvain. He makes believable the raunchy side of the fastidious Bracken and the romantic side of the fanatical Joyce.
The stories of the two, who in real life probably never met, are interwoven through the device of radio broadcasts and a ghostlike video image in a mirror. This allows the illusion of communication between the two characters to be cleverly created.
Jonathan Epstein and Carol Moss are both excellent, whether portraying friend, lover, wife, journalist, or choruslike narrator.
To the actors, the festival is courageous in itself. ``Precious few theaters in town are challenging audiences beyond their day-to-day experience,'' says Mr. McElvain. ``The company is putting itself on the map with high-risk material, and actors are working at something in which they may fail.''
The festival is receiving support from Irish scholars and organizations in Boston, as well as from both the British and Irish consuls.
Symposium speakers include poet Seamus Heaney, historian Padraig O'Malley, and former United States ambassador to Ireland William Shannon.
Later plays in the festival are: ``Rat in the Skull,'' by Ron Hutchinson; ``Observe the Sons of Ulster Marching Towards the Somme,'' by Frank McGuinness; ``Ourselves Alone,'' by Anne Devlin; ``Mumbo Jumbo,'' by Robin Glendinning; ``Pratt's Fall,'' by Stewart Parker; and ``Gold in the Streets,'' by Marie Jones.