Murder of Crows: a Review by Lorcan Falls

Lee Coffey’s Murder of Crows is a startling and thought-provoking drama; a twisted coming of age story with themes of sex and violence posing startling questions about the perils of black and white morality.

It is also a play rich with humour and the joys of young womanhood, as it follows three Dublin schoolgirls sent on a disciplinary retreat by their school, and details the life altering events which take place there.

As the audience take their seats, they are met by an otherworldly and commanding sight; a set of three, stark, isolated platforms, each featuring a white backdrop, draped in tangled black netting, and host to an actress clad in black, standing still as a sentinel, staring unwaveringly and unnervingly in to nothing.

These actresses are Aisling O’Hara, Katie Hornan, and Amilia Stewart, who for the next hour entrance and enthral in a powerful production.

The play features a cast of nine characters, with each actress portraying one central role and two minor characters (incidentally, with a 2:1 ratio of female to male characters).

With such a minimalist setting this could be a challenge for any actor, but the sterling talents of the performers and thoroughly enjoyable script make it a success.

Aisling O’Mara plays the bawdy Jess, a bold and brash young woman who is always ready with a puerile, irreverent joke. The character is a familiar archetype; a dirty-minded braggart, reminiscent of Derry Girl’s Michelle.

O’Hara brings considerable charisma and physical presence to the role. Unfortunately, I found her secondary characters within the play to be somewhat repetitive; as well as the gutter-mouthed Jess, O’Hara plays her equally scatological grandmother, and a young man embarrassed by erectile dysfunction (“The problem is usually getting it back down!”).

While these characters are all enjoyable in their own right and they possess more depth than just the vein of sexual humour running through them, I found the repetitive themes limited O’Hara’s opportunities to effectively display dramatic range.

Amilia Stewart is incredibly endearing as the fragile Dee, a character whose moral sensibilities fall somewhere between those of unabashed Jess and the virginal Sam.

Stewart expertly elicits an emotional response through her depiction of Dee’s frail and fragile nature; the character having a child-like charm and innocence in spite of an alleged oral sex incident about which she is goaded, naturally, by Jess.

The viewer cannot help but wish her to be safe from harm. Stewart is also intriguing as the socially maladjusted “Toxic” Tania.

My favourite performance of the night was that of Katie Honan. Her primary character, Sam, is more moderate than Jess and Dee; less overt than the former, and more self-assured than the latter. She stands centre-stage, between her more extreme companions, and is at times the voice of reason and moderation.

As enjoyable and well-realised as Honan’s Sam is, I found that her acting skills truly shone in her secondary characters; a scathing, sardonic schoolmistress, and a pampered, affluent South-Side Dublin schoolboy named Matt.

Through changes of posture, expression, and vocal inflection, Honan seemed almost to visibly transform in to these characters, and to inhabit their beings. This was a virtuoso performance, and brought much-appreciated life and variety to an already outstanding three-woman production.

The tone of the play varies; there is outrageous humour in the wicked banter of its main characters and the pithy putdowns of their fed-up teacher; there are revelations and insights in to multiple characters’ insecurities (could all the sexual swagger and cavalier chat be covering up for something else?), and there is also the committing of brutal, irreversible acts of violence.

The savagery does not come without precedent, as the character of Jess’ senile grandmother is used to evoke the figure of the banshee, the wailing woman portending death to those who hear her (and thereby uttering the play’s title). This device was used to similar effect in Jez Butterworth’s The Ferryman, a play which looks at the lingering effects of sectarian violence in Ireland, and at the unhealed wounds in a family farmstead; the banshee motif seemed more at home there in both theme and setting, looking at the lingering pains of this island’s conflicts in a rural setting, than it does here; auguring a more universal type of pain from a Dublin tenement. Nevertheless, it is an effective narrative technique, and the audience is indeed left spellbound, trying to decipher the ominous warning as the play’s denouement unfolds in blood and tears.

And it is like a spell, for as the characters share laughter and tears, embarrassing stories and grave secrets, they never look at each other. Their eyes are on the audience, the wall or the floor, but never on each other, until after one earth-shattering revelation.

The effect is like a spell lifting, and serves to draw the audience deeper into the twisted events of the play’s climax. It raises unvoiced questions about violence; the justifications which people will make for it, how easily one could find themselves as either a victim or a perpetrator; and how things are rarely as black and white as they seem on the surface.

Lorcan Falls is a local musician and a Graduate of English and Ancient History at Queen’s University. He writes regularly for The Monthly.

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