Tradition and liberalism prove an explosive mix

A small town Irish classroom provides the setting for an investigation into what happens when past and present values collide. Sean Campion, who plays the old school headteacher, talks to Bridget Galton THE clash between traditional values and modernisa

A small town Irish classroom provides the setting for an investigation into what happens when past and present values collide. Sean Campion, who plays the old school headteacher, talks to Bridget Galton

THE clash between traditional values and modernisation is brilliantly evoked in

Pat McCabe's 1995 novel The Dead School.

Set in 70s small town Ireland, it pitches traditionalist headmaster Raphael Bell head to head with rock 'n' roll-loving, rule-breaking new teacher Malachy Dudgeon.


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The ensuing chaos leads to tragedy for a young student and for both teachers, with Bell succumbing to the insanity that has stalked him all his life and the idealistic younger man undone by his well meaning but irresponsible attempts to challenge a hidebound system.

Working with a McCabe-penned script, Livin' Dred Theatre last year created a skilfully choreographed, five-strong ensemble piece, that found a rich theatrical physicality for this intense, surreal, fragmented story.

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In Dublin and on tour around the Irish Midlands, Sean Campion gave a critically acclaimed performance as Bell, a man haunted by his past, who struggles to understand the emerging liberalism he believes ushers in vice and temptation.

Campion says it's as much a psychological drama about the two men's inner lives and pasts, as about styles of schooling and social change.

"The thing that came singing loudly through to me with the character of Raphael was his obsession with being the best at what he does, the best teacher, the best headmaster. But he hasn't built in for himself any coping mechanism when he's not the best.

"A new wave of teaching arrives, a wave of modernism, and he isn't equipped to deal with a parents' committee or a female teacher. Things are being taken away from him and, because there isn't a coping mechanism, this man, who was a product of his time teaching the only way he knew how, mentally disintegrates.

"With Dudgeon, it's not just about this clash of cultures but about what comes with him and how his demons catch up with him."

Campion remembers his own education in 70s Ireland, with teachers versed in repetitive wrote learning who brooked no questions and doled out corporal punishment.

"One teacher brought in a bunch of what we call sally rods, fresh young branches cut from saplings, and he regularly used them on us."

The cast play multiple roles as the narrative shifts fluidly from past to present and reflects the inner workings of the two men's increasingly disturbed minds.

(Historic Irish figure Daniel O'Connell appears regularly to Dudgeon on his way to work.)

"On the first day of rehearsals, the director admitted he had no idea how to do this piece and gave all five of us licence to play around and make sense of it, to see how it could work.

"This style evolved that seemed to fit the material," says Campion, who starred in the hit show Stones In His Pockets at the Tricycle Theatre a decade ago.

He says that play taught him that "two actors can play 15 or 16 characters and, if you are careful and clear in how you present an idea, you can do it on the turn of a sixpence and the audience will get it."

A similar shorthand is deployed in The Dead School, which transfers to The Tricycle next week.

Campion adds: "That collaborative method of working is hugely satisfying, when you bring your imagination into the room and let it run riot with a director who's not afraid to say, 'Let's play.' The work can become whatever you want it to be."

Performing by night at the Tricycle, Campion will be rehearsing by day for a similarly collaborative project about compulsive gambling.

"You need time in the afternoon when you switch on to do the evening performance and time afterwards to wind down. But no actor would complain about having too much to do, it's the way of this business, it's either a feast or a famine, all duck or no dinner."

The Dead School runs at The Tricycle from February 22 until March 13.

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