Gabriel Byrne Directs Culture Project Show That Tackles Child Abuse In Ireland

If Gerard Mannix Flynn’s new one-man play James X, which concerns the institutionalized abuse of children in Irish schools, smacks of direct experience with Ireland, it could be because Mr. Flynn isn’t just a playwright and actor. He spends his days working as an independent councilor for Dublin City Council. It is also because the play, which concerns child abuse in Irish schools, comes partly out of his own experiences.

The Observer spoke with Mr. Flynn, and with the actor Gabriel Byrne, who is making his theater-directorial debut with James X, currently showing at New York’s The Culture Project.

Leaning on a seat next to the stage after a breathtaking performance, Mr. Flynn explained the sort of effect he is looking to have on the audience, or, as he prefers to call it, the public.  “We’re not here to confront them or to traumatize them, we’re not here to soak them down or to give them a sentimentalized version of the Magdalene Laundries.”

In the play James X – a pseudonym given to protect his identity – sits in the foyer of a courtroom, where the play takes place, waiting to be called in to give evidence to the “Commission to Inquire into Child Abuse” (a real Commission set up in 1999 by the Irish Government). James recounts the story of his life, using a legal file that chronicles his time in and out of various institutions; occasionally he glances forebodingly in the direction of the courtroom.

Mr. Flynn characterized the investigation into child abuse in Ireland as “a trauma turned into a big tragedy, because everybody loves a tragedy.”

In telling his story, he mimics nuns, priest, and judges, and re-embodies his former self: a young boy taken far away from his parents and admitted to Letterfrack industrial school for stealing a toy. He was put in jail as a teenager and then, later, admitted to a mental institution, and reached adulthood as an unstable alcoholic.

When it was finally published in 2009, the report from the actual Commission – commonly called the ‘Ryan report’ – was much-criticized. Mr. Flynn calls it a “whitewash”. No prosecutions arose from what some called Ireland’s Holocaust. He believes the essence of the report is wrong to begin with. “Essential they’re saying ‘it’s not all bad’,” he said. “Well it is, there’s nothing good in it.”

He would know. He spent 18 months at Letterfrack industrial school, the same school the fictional James X is sent to as an adolescent. Although it’s a work of fiction, Mr. Flynn said, James X has “a certain measure of truth in my life, but it’s made up of the consummate of other people.”

The play is as exhausting as it is brilliant. Throughout his harrowing monologue, Mr. Flynn wreaths on the floor, runs in circles and loudly clenches his teeth.

In drama, subjects like child abuse often tend to devolve into pathos, but James X never strays into that territory. Mr. Flynn’s breakneck delivery is almost rap-like in its cadences: “We are fretting, crying, upset. Half-awake, half-asleep. Scattered sheep of Little Bo Peep. My little Brother’s got his shoes on the wrong feet. Me sister forgot to put her knickers on. Her communion dress is in the pawn. The bell for school is long since gone.”

You can almost smell the black smoke and feel the wind in your face as he recalls running through Dublin and hopping on the backs of trucks: “I run and I dash. Run faster than birds. Faster than the fastest fast.”

As James’ time in court approaches, the rigidness builds in his physicality and you get a feeling that the stream of conscious life story is not what it seems to be. He abruptly stops telling it, and shifts gears. “This is my statement,” he says solemnly, “This is my truth. The real story. The story I came to tell.” Stepping forward, towards the audience, he reads the account of what really happened to him. In that moment he undergoes a transformation: from court jester to real person. When finished telling us – the public – his statement, he turns and leaves the foyer.

“It’s exciting for me as a performer, exciting for me as a artist, as a politician and as an advocate of the rights of children and the rights of those who were wronged,” Mr. Flynn told The Observer, “to be able to bring that issue out into the open clearly honestly with integrity without them becoming ‘victims’, ‘survivors’ or any of the old bullshit tags they attach to people.”

It’s fitting that a play dealing with some uncomfortable facts of Ireland’s past should be directed by Mr. Byrne, the country’s cultural ambassador. “If you want to connect with an audience you can’t go down the road of using sentiment,” he said, in a telephone interview, of the play’s rawness. (Presumably he would know a bit about psychological nuance, from starring as the therapist protagonist in the HBO series In Treatment.) For James X is the latest in a long line of work that he has helped create in his ambassadorial role, including conceiving and curating the first Irish film retrospective at The Met. It is a job that Mr. Byrne does virtually for free, taking only a small stipend for travel expenses.

“There’s no equivalent to him in New York,” Mr. Byrne said of Mr. Flynn. “Its like Kristin Quinn morphing into Eric Bogosian.”

Various incarnations of James X have existed down the years, including a stand-up routine,  Mr. Flynn believes that at the core it’s “the honest truth of the story that’s most important.” After performing this piece over an extended period of time, in hindsight does art help fill a gap in any small way, where the Ryan report and others have failed? “Art passes the message on to the public,” Mr. Flynn said. “It’s a companion, but art doesn’t heal you.”

Mr. Byrne puts it more directly. “When I go to see a play, most of the time I say to myself ‘Yeah it’s a good performance but its not the truth.’ What you got last night [at the play] was the truth. That’s what people want from theatre. They want to come out saying: ‘Fucking hell what was that?!’”

sduffy@observer.com