OLD TESTAMENT themes and the Irish Literary Revival get an outing at the Finborough Theatre as it dusts off T. C. Murray’s 1910 play Birthright. This short but intense two-acter helped to make the reserved Roman Catholic schoolmaster’s name as a playwright and did much for Dublin’s nascent Abbey Theatre, too.
It is a dark palette of social realism, set in a rural County Cork farmhouse. One son is about to be sent off on a long journey to America; the other is out captaining the village hurling team. Each loves his home in a different way, just as the affections of their parents are demonstrably dissimilar. It is Esau and Jacob all over again.
The fiery Bat Morrissey (Pádraig Lynch on commanding form) prefers his favoured younger son, Shane, to inherit the family farm, and the mother, Maura (endearing Rosie Armstrong), is powerless. She adores the firstborn, Hugh, played with energy and charisma by Thomas Fitzgerald. He is the toast of the village, an altar server, poet, sportsman. Even the boys’ pal Dan Hegarty (Aidan McGleenan) is under his spell. But Shane (Peter Broderick as a conflicted, unfulfilled sibling) is not. Pressured by his father into acting against his brother’s interest, he is accused of being “a grabber, a coward”.
The Church is an offstage character. Fr Brady asks Hugh to oversee post-match pub refreshments in his place; the domestic father cannot stand the priest. Back at home, an injured horse needs to be shot. The family is convulsed by the drama of everyday life, which the director, Scott Hurran, mines with dark tension, if, at times, a little hurriedly. Catja Hamilton’s lighting and Chris Warner’s sound design conjure effectively the contrast between the family’s internal habitat with the world outside.
The Easter Uprising and the Troubles may have come years after, but the devastating heart of Murray’s fratricidal tale holds the Genesis 4 question “Where is your brother?” with consequences that outlive us all.
Birthright is at the Finborough Theatre, 118 Finborough Road, London SW10, until 30 September. Box office: 020 7244 7439. www.finboroughtheatre.co.uk