The Shackles

A work of fiction that imagines a theatrical experience, to die for….

by: Ken Foxe

I’ve been to see plays before but I’ve never had to pay $17,000 for the privilege. It’s more money than I can afford, but the opportunity was impossible to resist. I remember the preview night, sitting on the refurbished Mississippi steamboat that brought us from the dock on the River Liffey out to the artificial island. There’d been rumors circling and swooping, like starving seagulls over the bay, around McMahon’s one-man show entitled The Shackles. Word was spreading rapidly that nothing like it had ever been seen before. But McMahon had always been a genius with publicity, aside from being the greatest Irish stage actor of his generation. When the waivers warning of possible death were sent to audience members to sign, there were nervous laughs, but every seat would become occupied nonetheless.

I was seated in the press gallery as the director explained how the performance would work. The Shackles runtime would be around ninety minutes. The audience, it was announced, would be reduced by one by the time it was over. It was allowed for patrons to leave their seat at any time until just before McMahon’s closing soliloquy began. Then, the clasps would clamp shut upon your wrists and ankles locking you in place on the crimson velvet upholstery.

“If any of you suffer from severe anxiety, or have frail hearts, it might be best to leave now,” said the director.

That first night, all stayed in their seats with little knowledge of what was to come. And so, even when the gunshot boomed and the curtain closed, and even when the audience member’s head lay limp upon his left shoulder, a bullet wound between his eyes, all assumed it was just part of the performance.

As the clasps on arms and legs clicked open, the crowd rose to their feet, hands clapping, the air near aflame with awe. Only two people stayed silent — the dead man and his companion. For she could see the blood was real and that he could not be roused.

McMahon was guilty of no crime of course. On the artificial islands in the Irish Sea, the billionaire landlords — climate refugees mostly — could make their own rules, or none at all. On one of the islands, a 500-seat theatre, the Roxborough, had been constructed to put on the type of shows that nobody else dared to, the avant-garde and impossibly outrageous. In the art deco lounge after the performance, McMahon told the assembled journalists, myself included, that any person who had already bought a ticket could request not just a refund, but double what they paid.

“The refund will come from my own pocket,” he said, as he sipped from a plastic bottle of Evian water and sucked on a rolled-up cigarette like it was an asthma inhaler. “Though I doubt there’ll be too many takers.”

In the press section of the boat the deck was abuzz with chatter. I began to think of how I would frame my review. I could hear the other critics talking, their voices giddy. “How did he do it? How’d he make it look so real?”

In consideration of the performance, as lightning flashed surreally above the wind turbines on the southern horizon, not a soul was quite sure what they had seen. Was it all a trick, an illusion? Or was it, as McMahon insisted to us in the lounge afterwards, an assassination?

The next morning as I sat at the kitchen counter drinking fresh-poured coffee, a news alert came through on my mobile phone. It was about the death of a businessman named Michael O’Gara. He was a well-known name if high finance was a thing of interest to you.

Mr O’Gara had been attending a performance of McMahon’s one-man play at the Roxborough the previous evening but had “taken ill,” according to the report The confidentiality laws were such that no further detail on the manner of his death could be provided. Only the audience members fully understood.

I was still pondering how to begin my review, to describe the peculiar performance for the Sunday newspaper where I worked. The play was defined by that concluding gunshot yet how could I hint at it without giving it away? Was I even certain of what had happened? I knew what I had seen was different but for once, words escaped me.

By opening night the clamor for tickets was thunderous. It was like nothing I had ever seen in twenty-odd years of reviewing plays at the Abbey, Gate, and all venues in between. It was said that tickets were changing hands for four-figure sums.

At some point after each evening’s performance, a news alert would arrive on my mobile. Mr X, Mrs Y, Miss Z had also “taken ill” at the Roxborough the previous night. Their bodies would be brought ashore on a Connemara currach with a black sail. One night, I found myself at Spencer Dock, watching the coffin-boat come in utter disbelief.

When finally filing my review for the newspaper, I had never been so unhappy with anything I’d written. I began to understand that I had never really seen the play. In the press box, with my arms and legs free to move, its meaning had escaped me. To truly experience it, you had to hear those clamps click shut around your wrists and ankles, to have surrendered your chance to leave. To watch McMahon on stage, his voice hypnotic, the rifle in his hands, his eyes searching through the audience, seeking his target. To feel the explosive frisson of his gaze. To have the dice of life and death roll upon your back.

To pay for the high cost of admission, I sold my car. Using a bike more often, I reasoned, might help me drop some of the stubborn middle-aged weight my doctor is always scolding me about. The six thousand euro I received for it, added to my rainy-day savings, made twelve. I took a loan out for the rest from the credit union. It was enough to buy a single ticket. “A fucking bargain,” the scalper told me. I don’t know what frightened me more, the possibility it was counterfeit or the panic I’d feel as the play drew toward its denouement.

The day of the performance, I had second, third, and fourth thoughts. I wondered if I should try to resell the ticket and recoup some of my money.  I dwelt on how far the money could take me from Ireland, and for how long. I wasn’t well-paid; I was a newspaper journalist — the two things had long since become mutually exclusive.

As I sat on the steamboat, a hush filled the air as the horn blared. An attendant came by with a form to fill in as if we were about to enter another country. “This performance carries the risk of serious injury, or death, for audience members,” it read. I scribbled my signature, my hand shaking. 

I could hear snatches of conversation carried in gusts across the deck. I could hear conversations regarding the exorbitant prices that had been paid for tickets and it seemed I hadn’t done so badly after all.

“This will be my third time seeing it,” said one passenger, wearing a top hat and a fine woollen overcoat. “My fourth,” replied a gentleman, tuxedo-clad, beside him. In my old jeans and brown boots, I felt out of place, like I’d come to my own funeral in casual dress.

Watching and listening, every degree of fear was on display: the bombastic sort of pretending to be unafraid; the type of bravado that might carry a man up out of a trench and into no man’s land. Many smoked cigarettes or discretely swallowed small tablets. Others moved their feet like they were tapping to some unheard jig. One man played with a child’s red snap bracelet, whipping it hard against the back of his hand. Me, I just tried to concentrate on my breathing, attempting to bring any nascent panic to heel.

One in five hundred, I found myself whispering, silently calculating the probability. Zero point two per cent. Zero point two.

At most theaters, there might be time to have a drink before the show but The Shackles was different. We walked swiftly up the cobblestones as if on a night march, the road damp in the autumn rain. Through the drizzle, you could make out the Roxborough with its grand colonnade and tall gas-fired braziers. There was hardly enough time even to use the toilets before being led to our seats.

Forthwith upon being seated, the director walked on-stage. The instructions, which were a mere curiosity on preview night, now carried sodden weight. At the mention of the word “anxiety,” my heart began to thump so intensely that I had to start inhaling deeply through my nose to try to be-steady my pulse. Nobody had moved by the time the lights dimmed and McMahon walked out.

For years, I’d try to craft words to bring meaning to what occured on stage, but this was something that far transcended my skills. Words came and went in my mind — magnetic, powerful, sublime, astonishing — but melted away like light snow. McMahon’s control of voice, gesture, movement, and energy seemed preternatural. And every time his eyes would fall upon the area where you sat, it was like you had touched your hand on an electric fence.

The director had explained how ninety seconds before the clasps would lock us in, two red bulbs on either side of the stage would be illuminated. A half dozen audience members in front could bear it no longer and took their leave. I could hear more footsteps, coats rustling, and muttered apologies behind me as others left. But I could not take my eyes away from McMahon.

I had my hands and feet in position as the shackles closed around them. They were too tight to escape from, not so tight they were uncomfortable. And it was then an unexpected calm came over me, as if the dice were rolling and all that remained was to see where they would land.

My mind was caught between two thoughts: McMahon’s manic energy on the stage and the harmony of chance. One in five hundred, I whispered and then I remembered the unknown number who had left. One in four hundred and—

The gun was fired. The shot reverberated around the stalls. One man died and I was alive. The clamps opened as the lights went down. People were pulled to their feet as if gravity had reversed. Hands clapped like thunder, feet stomped, feral roars rose that seemed out of place in a theatre. And the only thing that came to mind was whether I could remortgage my house so that I could experience The Shackles again.


Ken Foxe is a writer and transparency activist in Ireland. He is the author of two non-fiction books based on his journalism and likes to write short stories of horror, fantasy, SF, and speculative fiction. (Previous Stories: / Twitter: / Instagram:

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