Entertainment Theatre & Arts

Saturday 23 September 2017

Take a step into WWI when fourth wall falls at Gallipoli

Theatre

The ‘Pals’ battalion is the subject of an ANU production based in Collins Barracks
The ‘Pals’ battalion is the subject of an ANU production based in Collins Barracks

Maggie Armstrong

On April 30, 1915, the 7th Battalion of the Royal Dublin Fusiliers marched through Dublin city and set off for war. But one soldier didn't make it.

"I couldn't forget the story of Ewen Cameron," says Louise Lowe, director of ANU, which just opened its momentous play Pals: The Irish at Gallipoli.

"He left here with everybody else on April 30 to great fanfare. The whole city was cheering them, they were so much the golden boys. These men were the bravest, the strongest, the most noble in the country.

"They are parading them along the quays, around Trinity College, to head for Holyhead and Basingstoke and eventually Gallipoli. On the way, Cameron steps into the train carriage on Westland Row, goes into the toilet and takes his own life."

This is one of the untold stories that ANU have disinterred from the archives and pieced into their short play, which opened this week at the National Museum of Decorative Arts and History in Collins Barracks, and runs daytimes until April 30 (tickets €5).

This is immersive theatre, which begins with the actors. The 7th Battalion - a 'Pals' battalion, recruited as friends from their rugby clubs - lived in the Royal Barracks for 17 weeks from January to April. One hundred years later, the cast and ANU's directors Louise Lowe and Owen Boss decamped in the barracks for those exact weeks, devising their play.

It's "kind of bizarre and fun, we inhabit the barracks to make it come to life," says the formidable Louise. It looks a lot more like work in their eerie rehearsal room, the dormitories where the soldiers slept.

Their table is piled with military history books and notes and teacups. Along the walls are charts they have compiled to imagine the trenches: blood, scabby skin, cigarettes, mildew, rotting flesh, dirt, mud, frogs, flies, laughter, crying, screaming, dampness.

In the corner are more makings of a gruelling play - a mottled gun and gun rest, trench tools, and uniforms made by The Abbey in the exact historical model - satchels and heavy bull's wool coats.

They play real-life characters from a book called The Pals at Suvla Bay, a primary source treasure written by a Gallipoli survivor.

Suvla Bay in Turkey is a place you probably know from the folk song The Foggy Dew, which sings, "'Twas better to die 'neath an Irish sky than at Suvla or Sud-El-Bar", and other shaming sentiments.

ANU are trying to reckon with this legacy of shame. About 210,000 Irishmen fought in World War One; 35,000, or more, were killed. Yet many people will be learning about them for the first time at Collins Barracks. "World War One was a paragraph in history class," says Louise.

"I find myself getting more and more angry," says Owen, "about what I was taught in secondary school and the agenda that was positioned within the school curriculum."

Actor Bairbre Ni hAodha describes the ill-fated Pals. "Three quarters of them died over there, the other quarter of them were really affected by what happened, both physiologically and psychologically. They leave as heroes from these barracks on April 30, 1915, by the time they return, a year later, you're right into the middle of the Easter Rising. Within the next 10 years they get written out of Irish history."

"That's why we recognise their courage and their bravery, whatever their reasons were for joining," says Bairbre.

ANU have reconstructed a dorm. What's immersive theatre like?

"You're getting into their bed. Going through their pockets. You're in their space, you're in their world, you can touch things. It's multi-textured and all your senses are going," says Louise. "The audience are at the very centre of the work," says Owen, "And their presence is vital," adds Louise.

On the phone, Catriona Crowe of the National Archives,who guided some of this research, says, "What happens is the glass wall of the theatre vanishes. They step through that and you can step through if you want to. It's very challenging to people who are used to sitting in comfortable seats in The Abbey or The Gate and having nothing to do.

"I never met anyone who went to an ANU production and didn't come out feeling completely different," she adds.

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