Billed as a “compelling look at a life behind the headlines of the Troubles”, Hard to Believe, a one-man show about a former counter-intelligence officer in Northern Ireland, was first staged in 1995. Its writer Conall Morrison returns to direct this timely revival, which comes in the wake of recent revelations about ‘Stakeknife’, the British Army superspy who infiltrated the IRA and ordered more than 40 murders.
In Hard to Believe, the fictitious John Foster – played by Irish actor Sean Kearns, who created the role in the original production - returns to Belfast for the funeral of his mother, his last surviving family member. We meet him afterwards, in the attic of his old home, where the ghosts of the dead and his own past continue to haunt him.
Dressed in his funeral attire, stiffly postured and tightly lit, in the play’s opening moment, Kearns’ Foster could be mistaken for an old-fashioned portrait painting, perhaps one of the ancestors he later dredges up. As the lights are raised further, to the strains of classical music, and the piles of clothes, antique trunks and other bric-a-brac come into view, the feeling that this must be a period piece intensifies.
It’s sometimes hard to then marry parts of the late 20th-century history, that Foster recounts in free-falling fashion, with the setting. But the contrast is perhaps fitting. It’s one of many jarring moments in a contradictory and – especially for any theatregoers not so au fait with northern Irish matters – complicated life, in which religions and belief systems war within a single individual as viciously as they do within the family and the country at large.
Kearns does well to elucidate the jumble of memories and characters, but he can do little to make us like or sympathise with Foster, a truly loathsome man who has, in his time on this earth, done some truly loathsome things. Crucially, the play also misses its natural ending – which would have brought Foster back neatly to his opening tableau moment – and opts to unsettle us further with an unnecessarily gruesome and drawn-out conclusion.
Cold and calculating, yes, but not “compelling” enough I’m afraid.
- Terri Paddock
Reviewed at Edinburgh's Assembly Rooms during the 2004 Edinburgh Fringe festival, Hard to Believe transfers to London’s Riverside Studios from 2 to 26 September 2004 (See News, 24 Aug 2004).