Rat in the Skull
nytheatre.com review by Heather J. Violanti
September 23, 2010
The situation is familiar, but the setting is not. Rat in the Skull uses the conventional conflict of the "cop drama"—a tough, renegade cop squares off against an equally tough, renegade prisoner—and moves it to Paddington Green police station, circa 1984, with the Irish Troubles as a backdrop. Written in the mid-'80s during a crucial point in the Northern Ireland conflict, the play examines the insidious nature of violence. Hatred gnaws at the characters' souls like the metaphorical rat in a skull—it's always there, no matter what they do, and they can't escape the destruction.
The play begins when Roche, a young man from Ireland, is arrested in London on suspicion of masterminding a recent bombing. When the London police can't get much out of him, they bring in Nelson, a special agent from Northern Ireland, in hopes he can get Roche to talk. Nelson is both Roche's ally and enemy—an ally because he's Irish, an enemy because he's Protestant and from the north, still under British rule—while Roche is Catholic and from the south, the independent Republic of Ireland. The two duly square off, but not exactly in Hollywood cliches. Nelson plays good cop and bad cop with Roche, but he also defends him from the prejudice of the two British cops who dismiss them as "paddies."
No one is what they seem. Tough-talking Nelson has a degree in English and a passion for Irish literature. Diffident Roche is capable of surprising eloquence. Harris, the xenophobic British cop in charge, is weary of violence, while up-and-coming new recruit Naylor reveals he doesn't even like the job that much, he just "fell for the advert." Sometimes, playwright Ron Hutchinson can veer toward the sentimental, particularly with Nelson, who, like many a movie or TV hero, is conveniently rebounding from the double angst of divorce and the death of his father. But there are no easy answers here. The resolution between Nelson and Roche remains deliberately ambiguous, so much so that their final violent confrontation seems as much an act of solidarity as hatred.
This lean, mean play suits the rough, exposed brick interior of The Drilling Company Theater. Production designer Mary Catherine Moore smartly anchors the action in a sparse set—a table, some battered chairs, those rough brick walls—that captures the grimness of a police station. Laurence Lowry and Roderick Hill make ingenious use of the space and elicit finely tuned performances from their actors. Colin Stewart is pitch-perfect as the rough and tumble Roche, while Tom O'Leary plays against his affable persona to capture Nelson's bitter strength. Jeff Burchfield suggests lingering despair lurking behind Harris' racism, while Seth Moore finds unexpected comic depth in Naylor, the young recruit who's beginning to have second thoughts. Helpful historical context is provided by video designer Justin Lang's introductory piece, which flashes images of violence in 1980s Ireland across while angry songs blare in the background.
While Rat in the Skull doesn't transcend its genre, it's an eye-opening look at a violent moment in Irish history.