A small, intimate venue, a healthy crowd, and an understated, eloquent performance of searing political poetry.
O'Brien is not new to stage performance, but is best known as a theatre director, having brought his legendary GIRO Theatre Company to the Edinburgh Festival Fringe on several occasions in the 1980s and 1990s. Although the company performed internationally up until 1998, the most uncompromising and starkly political works were written and performed in the 1980s, when Margaret Thatcher was in power, and seminal works included “Prosser-A Cell Death”, (1984). “The Lost Giro”, (1985), “Hitler. The Early Years,” (1986.) and “The Pub-Bombers,” (1987).
The Pub-Bombers was deeply political and, at the time of writing, stirred deep controversy. It dealt with the wrongful arrest, trial and imprisonment of six Irish men after the horrific bombing of two pubs in Birmingham in 1974, which killed 21 and injured 182. Arrested within hours of the blasts, the men, who became known as the Birmingham Six, protested their innocence and insisted police had coerced them into signing false confessions through severe physical and psychological abuse. At the time of writing the play, all these men were still imprisoned. It was only in 1991, four years after the piece was performed in Edinburgh, and after 16 years in prison, that they were freed, after their convictions were declared unsafe and unsatisfactory.
The episode was one of the worst miscarriages of justice in British legal history, and even now, such is the sensitivity of the case, all documents related to the reinvestigation of the case were in 1994 placed under a public interest immunity certificate, meaning that they will not be released until 2069.
So we’re clearly not dealing with a man who thinks of politics as a game, or who can’t readily put contemporary political acts into historical context in an artistic performance.
His first collection of poetry, The Sacrifice Zones, is published this year, and at the Voodoo Roms, this was the first public performance of the work. O’Brien performs three short, but searing pieces - the title piece The Sacrifice Zones, The Suicide Sanctions, and the Kristallnacht Variations. The latter is shockingly relevant to a Brexit Britain where anti-immigrant xenophobia is being given oxygen by authoritarian political figures, and the selective editing and framing of spurious information is manipulated in the media by vested interests.
His delivery introducing the pieces is factual, and understated, but when the poetry proper begins, the delivery is passionate and fiery, and despite the explosive topics covered, never slides into being over-emotional or sounding like a diatribe.
The delivery is cold, hard and steely. O’Brien’s light Birmingham accent provides a highly apt ‘flat’ and neutral musical tone that serves, like counterpoint, to underscore the fire and flair of his language - a factual, dry undertone delivering explosive emotional grenades and painting harrowing pictures.
The imagery fizzes, with a powerful mixture of Blake-like metaphors and images tethered to penetrating, direct verbs and stark, stripped narrative. There is a quiet and yet still visceral and seething quality that constantly astounds the listener. It all adds up to a mesmerising performance and a desire to savour the language further in written form.
This is intense, incisive political poetry aligned to a Blakean imagist sensibility underpinned by a Bukowski realism. O’Brien is the real thing.
★★★★★ Five Stars
8:00pm-9:00pm August 4-25. Free (Voluntary Donation).
Signed copies of The Sacrifice Zones will be available at all performances
James O'Brien photographed by Roza Nazipova