Review: Jade City at the Bunker Theatre

Written in response to the governmental neglect that’s left a lasting mark on the city and people of Belfast, Alice Malseed’s Jade City is a troubling two-hander exploring mental health among young working class men. Unemployed, skint, and with little to strive for or look forward to, friends Sas (Brendan Quinn) and Monty (Barry Calvert) have devised their own way to escape: The Game. Stepping out of their dull, uninspiring lives, in The Game they can be whoever and go wherever they want – fighters in the Cuban Revolution, guests at the Plaza in New York, seagulls soaring high above the city – and for a brief moment they can revel in their newfound freedom, be it financial, political or physical.

Photo credit: Ali Wright

But Sas, who at first glance appears to be the younger and less worldly of the two, has decided it’s time to grow up. He can’t stop thinking about a real-life incident that happened a while back, and he wants to stop playing and start talking – if only Monty would listen. As the story of that night comes out piece by piece, the play takes us down some dark paths, with references to depression, suicide and sexual violence, and a harrowing conclusion that’s left wide open to audience interpretation.

The interaction between Barry Calvert and Brendan Quinn is at first entertaining, then thrilling, and finally deeply uncomfortable to watch. With the action carefully contained by director Katherine Nesbitt within a boxing ring set that’s a literal representation of the guys’ surroundings and simultaneously hints at an impending conflict, the energy between them ebbs, flows, and ultimately mutates into something that feels toxic and dangerous – and not just for them.

As much as the play highlights the many barriers to opportunity faced by young Northern Irish men like Sas and Monty, it’s also something of a love letter to Belfast itself. Amidst the banter, Malseed’s script is often gloriously poetic: a celebration of the language, culture and atmosphere of a city that for so many people, even twenty years after the Good Friday Agreement, still brings to mind only unrest and division. There’s the sense of a community, albeit a dissatisfied one, in the familiar faces who hang out at the local working men’s club to drink their troubles away, and for all the characters’ escapist fantasies, it’s obvious that in reality they can’t picture themselves anywhere else.

Photo credit: Ali Wright

To ensure we don’t miss a word, captions are used throughout – and while these are certainly helpful at times for deciphering the characters’ Northern Irish accents, their inclusion feels as symbolic as it is practical: you get the sense that Sas and Monty are merely acting out a story that’s been written for them, and which for any good intentions they might have, can’t now be avoided.

The play was inspired by two shocking statistics: one third of people in Northern Ireland live on or below the bread line, and there have been more suicides in the last two decades than there were deaths during the Troubles. Behind those numbers are real people like Sas and Monty, who’ve grown up in the shadow of a period in their country’s history that they don’t even remember. The play asks for our understanding, if not quite our sympathy – some of these young men’s actions are unforgivable, regardless of their circumstances – and sends us away with a final image which, however you choose to read it, is unlikely to fade any time soon.

Jade City is at the Bunker Theatre until 21st September.

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