Brian Keenan talks about Someone Who'll Watch Over Me
On the morning of 11 April 1986 Brian Keenan was kidnapped by Islamic Jihad. After spending two months in isolation, he was moved to a cell shared with the British journalist John McCarthy. He was kept blindfolded throughout most of his ordeal, and was chained hand and feet when he was taken out of solitary.
The British and American governments would not negotiate with terrorists and Keenan was effectively ignored. Because he was travelling on both British and Irish passports, the Irish government made numerous diplomatic representations for his release, working closely with the Iranian government. Throughout the kidnap they also provided support to his two sisters, Elaine Spence and Brenda Gillham, who were spearheading the campaign for Brian’s release. He was released from captivity to Syrian military forces on 24 August 1990 and was driven to Damascus. There he was handed over by the Syrian Foreign Ministry to the care of Irish Ambassador, Declan Connolly. His sisters were flown by Irish Government executive jet to Damascus to meet him and bring him home to Northern Ireland. He now lives in Dublin.
The following are his thoughts on the play which was largely based on his experiences of captivity. There are small plot spoilers in the interview, so do not read on if you wish everything to remain a mystery!!
” I have on many occasions been invited to Frank McGuiness’s play Someone Who’ll Watch Over Me. For whatever reason, it was not until last Monday evening that I could afford myself the opportunity.
I had spoken to Frank some months after my homecoming. He told me of his proposed work and with much sympathy, great anxiety and tender fearfulness, he said he would do nothing further if I felt it caused any danger or hurt to those men who at that time remained in chains in Lebanon. I asked him simply to explain what he had in mind. I was intrigued as he spoke. I watched him lay his ideas before me. Here was a man writing in the dark, but somewhere in his imagination he had found bright sparks of illumination.
Though he had no information on which to base his play, I could see he had the touchstones of emotional truth. I simply answered him: ‘Go for it Frank’, realising that whatever the reality was I had no right to abort his poignant foetus. To deny a man or his work is no man’s right. Frank McGuiness had shown me and my still imprisoned friends a massive courtesy and sympathy. I could only return it.
On Monday evening I sat in the Abbey unnoticed and watched something that had become strangely more than oneself. It was a curious experience. During my captivity I had often sat and watched myself. That, too, was a curious experience. Frank’s play could only be fiction. I knew the man. Could I divorce myself from the reality?
The opening - shallow lights on a man chained and leaning on a radiator - choked me in its immediacy. Like seeing an old photograph and instantly recalling unwanted memories I sat frozen, but with a part of me melting. Can expectation be such a frozen thing?
Then, with a pace and ferocity I had not expected, the play and its people blasted out of the shadows. A life-enhancing interaction of human souls becomes a substantial and fleshy thing. Frank McGuinness, with his words and imaginative power, walked into a place where ‘angels fear to tread’ and came out dazzling. From that beginning I knew this was to be an uproarious celebration.
The man had caught human frailty and worshipped it; to err is indeed delightfully human. It reveals us to ourselves and Frank McGuinness’s mirror was not faulted. There were more than a few moments when I choked back intense realisation. With uncanny intuitive forse Someone Who’ll Watch Over Me touched wellsprings that moved the drama out from its vague topicality and sang to everyman.
With painful emotional force Edward says to Adam: ‘Let me be able to do my worst to you, and you to me…’ Thus began a burning in a rich linguistic fire that seared and scorched theaudience with a laughter that was at times was born out of pain as much as humour. It was obvious that Frank wrote this work with a terrible panic and a sore heart. All too often he hit those moments which Joyce called his ‘epiphanies’. The bright sparks of starlight in black sky which was the constant backdrop to the drama could not have been more exact.
In these star-bright moments McGuinness hit on, with a playwright’s subtlety, guilt, love, lonliness and all the gamut of emotions that make us, break us and remake us. But these lights illumination probe out darkness. He questions, for example, if the empowerment and loss of language can overcome absolute loss - when nothing is left but the flesh on our bones and perhaps a chain with which to rattle meaning.
Many things struck me. At times I gagged back tears, hoping no one would hear, and then thought about the marvellous theatricality of the play. The letters home which each of the men speak to the others were a fabulous vehicle. In their fabrication they lie and love ambiguously but they reveal more than their words convey.
The same dramatic mechanism is employed with the ‘make a movie’ sequences. Adam, Edward and Michael adopt and play out a persona. Their movies are a screen through which they re-invent themselves and the nothingness of their world. Who of us have not played that game? And how many of us know its value?
As McGuinness tries to pull together and resolve his drama. The ringing message is that brave men are only so when they conceive the female in themselves. Each man speaks often of his father. The father image is a hovering shadow, but in phases like ‘possessed by my father’, McGuiness hints at the female echoing in us all.
I loved dearly The Song of Songs. I don’t know where Frank got that from. It was a moment from my own captivity. Its eroticism is one of the most loving gifts to the world. I knew it, as obviously did the author, who used it with a poignant force. Again there was the unseen seam of the feminine sewing the parts together.
What more can I say? Frank McGuiness’s play made me choke and cry and laugh and hold myself. When a man of mighty talent takes on a daunting enterprise he is either, as we say in Belfast ’ A bollocks or a big man!…’ Thank you, Frank, for bringing me home again. You have a four square set of shoulders, an imaginative sensitivity matched only by craftsmanship. I hope someone will watch over you, too! ”