Tuesday 22 August 2017

Performance saves the San Patricios

100 More Like These, Viking Theatre, Clontarf

Stephen Jones plays boy soldier Thomas O'Bryne in '100 More Like These'
Stephen Jones plays boy soldier Thomas O'Bryne in '100 More Like These'

Emer O'Kelly

Larry O'Loughlin's programme biography for his play 100 More Like These describes him as a storyteller and playwright. But there's a lot more to playwriting than storytelling, and it's the latter that is dominant in this piece.

The subject is fascinating: the story of the San Patricios - the Irish battalion in the Mexican Army during the Mexican-American War of the mid 1840s. It was composed largely of ragtag and bobtail elements of deserters from the United States army, which itself at the time was composed of a fair element of ragtag and bobtail.

The San Patricios were led by a Major John Riley, originally from Clifden in Galway - and it's alleged in folklore that the Mexican leader Santa Anna said that with "a hundred more like these men of Riley's we could have won the war". Which may have been an excuse for being soundly trounced.

O'Loughlin tells the story in the voice of Thomas O'Byrne, a 12-year-old Boston rapscallion whose mother had died on the emigrant ship from Ireland, and whose father was a drunk.

His older brothers went on their way further west; young Thomas lived on his wits, and almost inevitably was tricked/forced into enlisting in the US army, lying of course about his age.

Now in middle years, he is telling the story of his desertion to what would become the San Patricios. So we know from the start that he survived the slaughter of the war. And by a series of unlikely coincidences, he is reunited in battle with his brothers, with all three escaping the retribution of the vengeful Americans after the defeat of Santa Anna. Treated merely as deserters, and not as prisoners of war, the captured San Patricios were executed. Only Thomas was spared on account of his youth.

The problem is that it's all chronological, with O'Loughlin offering what amounts to a step-by-step history of Mexico in the 19th century.

Heaven knows, that country's story is a sorrowful enough one - but what the audience is given is a list of battles, marches, gun emplacements, dates, and a cascade of military names which become as boring as they are confusing.

In addition, he puts hatred of England in the mouths of the San Patricios: under Riley as their motivating factor. As he tells it, the US Yankees are "cousins" to the English, and therefore figures to be treated as hated scum and natural foes by the Irish. It's all a bit far-fetched (or perhaps, one should say, one hopes it's a bit far-fetched.)

Allied to a golden glow of noble heroism in which the San Patricos are painted, while the Yankees are unredeemed and unredeemable brutes, it's a bit eye-blinking to anyone who knows the slightest historical facts about Santa Anna, a corrupt, savage, hypocritical and self-serving figure if ever there was.

He is only criticised with a certain mild amusement. As an historical representation, it's neither objective nor subtle. And it's too long by far.

But 100 More Like These still manages to cross the theatrical line despite all its faults. And that is because Thomas O'Byrne, the boy soldier of fortune is played by Stephen Jones - who brings an artlessness and innocence to the piece which transcends all.

It's an Awake and Sing production at the Viking Theatre in Clontarf in Dublin, and is lit by Andrew Murray with a spare but effective set by Liam O'Neill.

*******

Almost the last action of Leo Varadkar as Minister for Social Protection was to introduce a pilot scheme which will allow working professional artists to apply for Jobseekers' Allowance without being subject to the same controls as others for activation procedures.

It followed the furore over the Arts Council's (now abandoned) scheme to remove the Cnuas allowance for some working artists in receipt of it.

But perhaps the most significant factor in the announcement was Varadkar's admission that the much-vaunted tax exemption is no use to many young artists. In fact, it's no use to the vast majority of artists - as they don't earn enough to pay tax.

The detail of the exemption is that the first €50,000 earned by writers, composers, visual artists and sculptors is tax exempt. At a rough guess, if that benefits more than 100 artists in the country, I'd be very surprised.

And theatre artists, and all performing artists, are not included for such benefits, nor are they eligible to be elected to Aosdana, the artists' academy. They are not deemed "creative" but "interpretative."

So were Fiona Shaw and Stephen Rea resident here, they would not be eligible for tax exemption or for membership of Aosdana. Nor is the concert pianist John O'Conor, who is resident here.

Just a thought.

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