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Under suspicion

Actor Fergal Coghlan and producer Clare Langford told David Hennessy about Sus, a tale of racism that is not black and white.

Dilated Theatre Company are presenting a major revival of Sus by Barrie Keeffe, a play that looks at institutional racism within the police force.

The play sees Delroy, a young black father, being brought into an East London Police Station on what he thinks is SUS – suspect under suspicion – the law now commonly known as Stop and Search.

Unbeknownst to him, Karn and Wilby, two white male police detectives, are tasked with drawing a confession from him for an unspeakable crime and go about it in the most brutal of ways.

Although it is set on the eve of the election of Margaret Thatcher, it is prescient today with contemporary issues such as the Black Lives Matter movement.

As the election results come in, Karn, the older of the two, is elated at the prospect of a ‘new dawn’, while Delroy is subject to the abuse and horrors of an institution oozing with racism, misogyny, corruption and brutal violence.

Fergal Coghlan in character as Wilby.

Barrie Keeffe was well known for writing the film The Long Good Friday, starring Bob Hoskins and Helen Mirren.

However, he was more prolific as a writer of plays. Sus was first produced as a play in 1979 and it has since been made into a film starring Ralph Brown and Rafe Spall.

Barrie Keeffe died in 2019 after an illness. The Irish World once interviewed Barrie Keeffe, whose family came from Cork.

With the pandemic, one can assume this production to be one of the first to put on a Barrie Keeffe play since his passing.

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Fergal Coghlan, who plays Detective Wilby and is also one of the play’s producers, told The Irish World: “SUS was the law which allowed the police to stop people, take them in or to stop and search them.

“They’ve got carte blanche up to a certain extent to do what they want: To harass people, to bully, to intimidate, to just have fun at other people’s expense whenever they wanted to really.

“It’s scary stuff really.”

Alexander Neal (who also produces) and Fergal play the police officers while Stedroy Cabey plays Delroy.

Fergal continues: “Wilby’s got a very rigid sense of morality.

“Now he’s put in this position of authority within the police force and he’s got the same sort of rigid mentality about criminals, wrongdoers, and he has got that kind of inner aggression ready to unleash.

“He’s got this binary view of the world which drives him and unfortunately, it leaks into his view of race as well.

“So we are arresting a black man in this play and that bias is extremely heavy.”

Fergal Coghlan

Producer Clare Langford, from Limerick, adds: “The play is very much about tapping into what’s current now, as well as looking at what’s going on historically.

“What have we learned? I mean, if you’re looking at a series of racial abuses that have happened in the past few years alone, you would think we’d have moved on quite a bit.

“And, of course, we saw within the Black Lives Matter after the murder of George Floyd, people take a look at what was happening around them locally and on a more global scale to see, we really haven’t gone far enough yet.

“This play is set in 1979, on the eve of Margaret Thatcher’s election, which was a very polarizing time, and it kind of feels like there was a lot of progression that happened and then there’s been this shift, especially since maybe 2016. With Trump, with Brexit happening, there’s been this shift towards really polarized politics and pitting one side against the other which ultimately means nobody wins.

“I think everyone’s ethos on this production is to value art, and in this case theatre, as a way of turning the mirror around and looking at what’s going on within society, within politics.

“In Sus what you’ll find is that every aspect of it is very meted out.

“It’s not black and white, the characters have all got good and bad aspects to them.”

Fergal Coghlan and Stedroy Cable in rehearsals for the play.

Fergal continues: “Obviously George Floyd is a major thing that happened and very sadly, coincidentally right now, Chris Kaba as well.

“The other thing to point out is the Sarah Everard case which is the worst of the bad apples in the police force, when they’re given these opportunities and these powers to be able to do what they want- That’s the very extreme example of what happens.

“But you’re looking inside a police interrogation room and how two white police officers behave, and the toxicity of that culture really.

“You’re in a room that has no windows and one door and the police have almost full license to do whatever they want.

“And they do. They personify that right wing attitude and that change that was happening in the political landscape at that time, for sure.

“And we’re talking about a story that Barrie Keeffe covered as a journalist in the 60s, he finally wrote the play in 1979 when he realised he had a really good political backdrop for that right wing behaviour, and it’s still relevant today.”

Clare Langford.

Although never seen, Margaret Thatcher’s presence looms large in the play.

Fergal says: “Really the only things referenced outside of the case itself is the political landscape of the times.

“It was a very exciting time for Tory supporters because there was so much buzz around this right wing mentality, which was, ‘We need to stop being tolerant, we need to start clamping down on scroungers and people who are relying on the state. And we need strong leadership and law and order’.

“And that’s why these police officers are so excited.

“They also received a pay rise after Thatcher came in because she knew that she needed to get them on side to deal with unions basically.”

The Metropolitan Police were found to be institutionally racist. It was this racism that hampered investigations like the murder of Stephen Lawrence.

However, still today, we often see stories about racial profiling with regard to stop and search.

It seems like the black man in the story could be easily replaced with an Irish one given the anti- Irish sentiment that existed in the police at the time..

Fergal, whose parents come from Kildare and Wicklow, says: “My dad came over as a young man in ’67 and he remembers being stopped by the police.

“At one point, it was him and a friend of his who’d come over together and they were in a phone box trying to figure out the phone codes and my dad popped out and asked this guy in the mechanic shop and said, ‘Hey, you got the code for Hammersmith?’

“And the next thing- This guy must have called the police and the cops came around, they took them out the phone box, slammed up against the wall, searched them, made them empty their pockets, were fairly rough handed with them.

“But they were treated guilty before proven innocent really, to explain what they were doing.

“And they were just trying to phone this person about getting access to a flat where they were staying.

“So that was in the 60s.

“It was the same time there was signs up saying, ‘No Blacks, no Irish no dogs’.”

Sus is at Park Theatre 21 September until 15 October.

For more information and to book, click here.

You can donate to the play’s crowdfunding appeal here.

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