A Defence of ‘Our Lady of the Goldfinches’ by Jane McNulty

On Thursday evening I went to see a production of Jane McNulty’s incredible new play, ‘Our Lady of the Goldfinches’ at The Lowry in Salford.
McNulty’s hard-hitting, disorientating masterpiece stays with you long after you leave. The play deals with the harrowing true story of Jean McConville’s murder by the IRA and her family’s subsequent trauma, waiting for the IRA to disclose the location of her grave. The sensitive subject matter is skillfully balanced (we see the family home yet also the cell of an IRA soldier at the same time, as well as the patrol of a British soldier). This kaleidoscope of experiences reflects the chaotic world of Belfast at the time of the Troubles (a euphemism McNulty herself is quick to deride). The radical style of the play (multimedia images interwoven with live music and clever use of symbolic props such as moving doorways, symbolising the ever-changing perspectives and the fact that the world was ‘looking in’ on the family, unpredicatble and volatile strangers peering in at their fragile world), is modern theatre at its best.

I was disappointed, then, to read of negative reviews from people on websites, ill-informed, bemoaning the radical style, complaining about the ‘confusing’ parallel narratives and poetic style. I wrote the following in response to a particularly harsh critic on http://www.thepublicreviews.com This is a toned -down version, as the editor was reluctant to publish my initial reaction.

I must say I don’t agree with the negative reviews above. In fact, many of the criticisms made are actually the things I liked about the play! Perhaps the fact that this play is dividing audiences is in itself the sign of an important piece of work.

The script is hugely powerful, each line superbly crafted to balance poetic devices with powerful dialogue. For example, there is a scene where the IRA return the mother’s purse and the daughter talks of the clasp, opening to pay for milk or food or shoes; this imagery is proudly poetic and justifiably so, breathing life and beauty into the characters, balancing details of the everyday life of a mother with the bigger themes of loss and grief.

I found the setup onstage equally powerful, the parallel dialogues effective rather than ‘confusing’, mirroring the fact that at the time forces were competing to justify and villify the IRA and an ordinary family were caught in the middle. It was also hugely symbolic, the watery grave ever present and spilling into the home, waiting to be located.

The fragmented style serves to reflect the uncertainty and agony of the characters, left to wait for 20 years before being able to discover the grave. It isn’s a simple story. The chaos and confusion of the time is beautifully symbolised by the kaleidoscopic imagery of this challenging play.

Theatre SHOULD be challenging. It should drag you from your comfort zone, as this play does, especially when the subject matter is so devastating and chaotic in itself. This is a beautiful piece of work.


About Ian O'Brien

I am a teacher and scribbler, living in Manchester, UK.
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2 Responses to A Defence of ‘Our Lady of the Goldfinches’ by Jane McNulty

  1. Jane McNulty says:

    Thank you. I’m grateful that you have understood what I was trying to do with my play. I spent 12 years trying to bring the story to life – and I did it with the support and help of Helen, Jean’s daughter, and her husband Se. Helen and Se were in the audience at The Lowry and their response to the play was more than positive. I’m very pleased about that of course. try to take a balanced view of critical response but I did find the review you refered to particularly hurtful and I’m afraid, uninformed. Again, thank you for your contribution to the discussion – intelligent and insightful.

    • Thanks Jane! I hope you continue to make such important and poetic work. It must be very fulfilling to have had the family in the audience. They are the only people whose opinion really mattered on the night.
      Thanks again, and I look forward to reading more of your work (I got a copy of the script and really enjoyed it). I’m trying to put my own work together and it’s inspiring to be remembered that theatre still can be such a challenging art form. Good luck with everything you do in the future!

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