Saturday 3 December 2016

Theatre: A view of the Big Fellow, warts and all

* The Big Fellow, Smock Alley, Dublin and touring
* The Importance of Being Oscar, Bewley’s Cafe Theatre Dublin

Emer O'Kelly

Published 09/05/2016 | 02:30

Cillian O Gairbhi, left, and Gerard Adlum in 'The Big Fellow'
Cillian O Gairbhi, left, and Gerard Adlum in 'The Big Fellow'

Whimsical understanding comes through in a new play about the Big Fellow.

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With the plethora of literary and dramatic material being produced around the centenary of the 1916 Rising, it is perhaps understandable that  a few people seem determined to produce a counterpoint in works specifically about Michael Collins. So far, he has  barely had a mention (and none that I've heard) in the celebrations of the centenary. But he was there, even if in a minor capacity.

And he was no Johnny Come Lately who joined up only on his return from London in 1915; he had been closely involved with the IRB while living there.

Co-Motion Media has stepped in with The Big Fellow, a play by Declan Gorman about Collins based on the Frank O'Connor biography of the 1930s. It has the dead Collins interrogating the writer in 1936 about his version of events. Collins is incredulous that in the years since his death he and his comrades have been painted into saintly plaster casts, non-drinking, non-swearing, chaste and fervent. And O'Connor and he thus come to an understanding, having started their dialogue with the enmity of old adversaries, O'Connor having taken the Republican side in the Civil War.

The one to emerge as exactly a dreary, almost inhuman plaster-cast figure in both men's eyes is Eamon de Valera. O'Connor was unflattering in the original work; Gorman is unflattering in his choice of events, and his two characters, Gerard Adlum as O'Connor, and Cillian O Gairbhi as Collins, are equally unflattering towards the Long Fellow.

Declan Gorman directs the two actors with a combination of physical energy and historical passion that is totally engaging, and leaves you with a better understanding of two important men in our history, even with their separate bitter warts very much intact.

But once again, the Irish propensity for infantilisation is present: Collins is referred to as "the lad from London" in 1916: he was 26 years old, for heaven's sake, not 14.

The Big Fellow is at Smock Alley Theatre in Dublin, and will tour regionally until the end of May.

* * * * *

Even a taste of the combined genius of Oscar Wilde and Michael MacLiammoir is fairly well guaranteed to be a treat. Which makes the latter's tribute/compendium from the 1960s, The Importance of Being Oscar, an ideal lunchtime theatre vehicle.

It's necessarily truncated from the original for the time-slot (at Bewley's Lunchtime Theatre at Powerscourt in Dublin), but it's still a pleasure, MacLiammoir's sardonic wit and empathy with Oscar's ultimate tragedy mixing smoothly with some of the most celebrated extracts from the great man's writings: Lady Bracknell (of course); Lord Goring from An Ideal Husband, De Profundis (Oscar's agonised letter from prison to the treacherous Bosie), and The Ballad of Reading Gaol.

It's also pleasant to get a view of the great writer that pre-dates the revisionism which for a number of years now has been trying to paint him into the frame of an anti-monarchist/nationalist/rebel republican. (MacLiammoir correctly described him as having shaken the dust of his native island from his feet as quickly as he could.)

Michael Judd, despite some slightly infelicitous mispronunciations of standard English of which neither Mickey Mac nor Oscar would have been guilty, gives a worthy and worthwhile performance, directed by Sinead Colreavy with incidental music by Nico Kean. It's a Bewley's co-production with Banba's Crown Theatre.

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