Global Arts Corps’s “Hold Your Tongue; Hold Your Dead,” which ran through September 28 and was put on by ArtsEmerson The World on a Stage, isn’t a satisfying play. Then again, it isn’t intended to be; this play aims to convey hard, unresolved truths. “Hold Your Tongue” follows the lives of two intersecting families as they struggle to find happiness, or any sort of resolution, in post-conflict Northern Ireland. The script and actors treated their material with a sincerity that allowed the overall atmosphere of the culture to pervade the production.
From the outset of the show, each scene felt grounded in the traditions of Irish culture while also exposing a foreboding disturbance. “Hold Your Tongue” began with the ensemble cast arranged in a circle of black chairs, with one member—Nevin (Ryan McParland)—standing apart, hiding his face on one of the stark set’s many black boxes. The characters took turns singing segments of Irish songs, ranging from Yeats’s “Down by the Sally Gardens” to the traditional “Here’s a Health to the Company.” Each singer was cut short mid-line by silence.
The fathers of both families, Colin (Alan McKee) and Rory (Vincent Higgins), drive the emotional conflict of “Hold Your Tongue.” McKee turned in a solid performance as Nevin’s Protestant “pacifist” father, scarred by the Troubles of the late 20th century. Nevin and Colin speak regularly, but rarely get through to each other. Shortly before Nevin takes his own life, he works with his father to assemble a power tool. As they finish the job, Nevin attempts to tell him of his lover Kerry (Eileen O’Higgins) and her pregnancy, but Colin simply laughs over the roar of the new tool and walks offstage.
Higgins’s Rory is a jaded tour guide, an Irish Catholic who compulsively mixes lies and harsh truths into his tours. After informing his tour bus that Leonardo DiCaprio was “born in Belfast,” he uses the same deadpan delivery to point out the Belfast city graveyard, which has the unique distinction of being cut in half by an underground wall to separate the Protestant and Catholic dead. Higgins was often caught speaking directly to the audience about the situation in Ireland; he stands at the back of his tour bus with a megaphone pointing outwards. In a remarkable scene, Rory speaks of the rising suicide rate in Ireland, one that has almost doubled “since peace broke out.”
Perhaps the most poignant aspect of the play is its depiction of its female characters as marginalized in present-day Ireland. While each female character has an influential role in the plot of the work, by the end of the show all have been rendered virtually powerless. Nevin’s mother, Nicola (Julia Dearden), is reduced to unintelligible babbling about household chores and groceries. Alice (Eileen Pollock) crawls into her bed in a drunken stupor, muttering one of the unwritten laws of Northern Ireland’s contemporary cultural landscape: “hold your tongue, hold your dead,” signifying the society’s reluctance to talk about past political violence and strife.
Kerry, the young woman with whom Nevin has made plans to raise a family, has the worst fate of the bunch. A victim of Nevin’s swinging moods and emotional emptiness, she seems powerless to do anything but watch as he slowly descends to his fate. This powerlessness isn’t a result of inaction; O’Higgins conveyed an urgency in Kerry that was immediate and relatable. She frequently voices her worry—appealing to Nevin, her father, anyone—but it is of no use, as both men have surrounded themselves with the emotional wasteland in which they live.
There was little melodrama in McParland’s performance—Nevin does not overstate his suffering, or even directly address it. In his climactic scene, loosely fastening a tie around his neck in a way more reminiscent of a noose than a tie, McParland simply repeated the word “useless” until the word itself became devoid of meaning and, well, useless. He was reduced to nonsensically muttering the word and inhaling sharply, as if gasping for breath.
Nevin’s suicide is the peak of the story, but its emotional climax comes earlier, when both fathers meet for the first time. Religious tensions were tacit yet palpable, but the two manage to establish an uneasy camaraderie as they hop from pub to pub one night. The peace topples, though, when a hint of an argument surfaces. A harmless argument about a folk tale amplifies until Rory explodes with anger, giving a seething rant against a Protestant celebration. The silence after this eruption speaks volumes, again pointing out the disjointed relationship between citizens on either side of the conflict.
In this way, “Hold Your Tongue” rarely confronted the issues of post-conflict Ireland head-on—and the show as a whole was better for its subtlety. Those issues were clearly reflected in the lives of its characters. Here and there, a profound sadness broke through with remarkable incisiveness. Throughout the production the conflict stayed entrenched, unmoving. Both sides remain at a hostile distance, illustrating what Alice mutters, drifting off to sleep: “you throw a stone, we throw a stone, all the way back.”
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