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Taking The Third

Stuart Bailie | 10:09 UK time, Friday, 6 January 2012

Stephen Rea is in the Black Box, Belfast, reading from The Third Policeman by Flann O'Brien. It's the second day of the Out To Lunch festival and an opportune way to chase out the January blues. Outside, things are perplexed and miserable. In here, we're party to a quality actor and a monumental book that's funny, fantasmagorical and more.

Rea is relishing the job, using choice sections of the story to picture the poverty, the dread and the rampant weirdness of rural Ireland in the 1930s. The bicycle rules and there's an atomic transference between man and machine that produces havoc with the habitual users. In this respect, The Third Policeman is the true parent of Father Ted, allowing the humdrum of parochial life to spin off into uncharted places - where the gombeen meets the grand-guignol.

It's not a far jump from here into the cosmic dimension. The book was never published during the author's lifetime, largely because it was too peculiar and post-modern. But a recent reference in the Lost TV series suggests that the public have caught up with the method. So the book is a mythical map, full of the walking dead and purgatorial wanderings. And as Stephen Rea returns us after an hour to the police station with the same old conversations and routines, the cycle of dread is complete.

The readings are enhanced with the accompaniment of Colin Reid, swapping his customary guitar for a piano, plus three string players, including the ever-engaged Neil Martin, aided by Becky Joslin and Niamh Crowley. They play edgy arpeggios and nocturnes with a nightmarish hue. Such an exceptional event. What a challenging start to the year.


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