Review: Language of the Mute


This review was originally written for The Public Reviews.

Acclaimed writer Jack Harte makes his debut as a playwright with Language of the Mute, presented by Parthalonians Theatre Productions at The New Theatre. The play is inspired by Harte’s history of working with Domhnall Ó Lubhlaí, the founder of Coláiste na bhFiann, who was posthumously revealed to have abused those under his care. Despite allegations being made against Ó Lubhlaí in the 1990s he was not prosecuted. The individual characters and the events portrayed in Language of the Mute are fictional.

A grey haired teacher, Donie (Michael O’Sullivan), sits in a prefab classroom in West Dublin, correcting copybooks. He goes about his mundane business as the audience takes their seats. The moment the houselights go down the real action begins- this is not a slow burning performance. Two people burst into the classroom and accost Donie, who is quickly bound and gagged. A kangaroo court is called to order by Kathy (Aoife Moore) and Dandy (Marc McCabe), both ex-pupils of Donie. Armed with a gun, Kathy is clear of her intentions from the beginning; she wants justice for her family and former classmates.  Another former classmate and ex-boyfriend of Kathy arrives at the prefab, under the illusion that a party is being held for Donie. Alan (Matthew O’Brien) is faced with the reality that he is now part of something far more sinister and he tries to be the voice of reason within the motley group.

Language of the Mute explores difficult subjects, such as child abuse, politics, the catholic church, and drug abuse. It is serious drama from beginning to end and will no doubt touch a nerve or two for those in attendance.  The actors give decent performances throughout, with O’ Sullivan’s mostly Irish speaking character being particularly impassioned about his cause. Central to its story is the importance of communication and how as a society the Irish have been slow to open up about certain issues. The power of many abusers is held in the sense of control they exert over their victims, effectively muting them. Harte demonstrates how vital language is, regardless of what tongue the words are spoken in. Without effective communication, where those who speak are listened to, violence and other maladaptive behaviour becomes the vernacular. Harte’s literary background comes across strongly in his poetic dialogue, however this sometimes feels at odds with the character speaking the lines and can seem a little bit out of place.

The drama takes place between the 1990s and the 1970s, with the transition between these periods being very well directed (Liam Halligan) and structured. The simple classroom set by Eoin Lennon is reminiscent of classrooms up and the down the country, whilst also tying in with the staunch republicanism of Donie. The action takes place under the averted eye of a poster of Patrick Pearse, who gazes towards a map of Ireland while practically neglecting those being abused in his name. The 1970s scenes are in Irish with subtitles, which adds to the realism of the story but can be distracting at times. While these scenes complement the historical background of the story, they don’t directly impact on the immediate issues facing the characters and the audience are already well aware of what has occurred in the past. Arguably these scenes could have been omitted, reducing the running time from 90 minutes to approximately 60, especially given the emotive and dramatic storyline. Of note, Dene BOLA’s sound skills add an eerie calmness to the transitions and this works very well a furthering the emotional impact of the tale.

With a literary feel throughout, Language of the Mute has some beautiful dialogue and tender moments in what is a very difficult tale to tell. It bravely tackles subjects that some would rather not acknowledge and in doing so attempts to give words to those who cannot speak or who are not listened to.

Writer: Jack Harte

Director: Liam Halligan

Photo by Futoshi Sakauchi

Runs until September 5th

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