Saturday 23 September 2017

Theatre: Fitting centenary for Francis Ledwidge

*A new play brings the celebrated WW1 poet vividly to life
* Ledwidge, New Theatre, Dublin
*Shackleton, Project Arts Centre, Dublin

Futility of war: Katie O'Kelly and Ethan Dillon star in the new production of Ledwidge which is currently showing at The New Theatre. Photo: Alan Craig
Futility of war: Katie O'Kelly and Ethan Dillon star in the new production of Ledwidge which is currently showing at The New Theatre. Photo: Alan Craig

Emer O'Kelly

It's not often that an Irish figure from the early twentieth century gets even-handed treatment, whether the medium is drama, fiction... or indeed, it has to be said, biography.

Polemic is frequently a motivating factor and the result can be skewed to the point of misrepresentation. But Gerard Humphreys's Ledwidge is a triumphant exception.

The author takes the poet Francis Ledwidge and sets the stage with his subject's early workers' rights activism, when he led an abortive mining strike only to have his companions abandon him and return to work, leaving him to overcome his bitterness through a combination of his poetry and a love tinged with healthy lust.

But as a labourer from a cottage little more than a hovel, his "suit" was unacceptable to his girlfriend Ellie's brothers on their snug farm, and she married elsewhere (only to die shortly afterwards in childbirth.)

But it wasn't his love poetry that put Francis Ledwidge into the history books of literature, but the war poetry which stands alongside that of masters such as Siegfried Sassoon and Wilfred Owen; and for that he (and we) have to thank his patron and mentor George Plunkett, better known as Lord Dunsany, (his title, and the name under which he wrote), who encouraged his efforts during long talks in the library at Slane Castle. He also ensured publication for the young poet.

Dunsany was also Ledwidge's captain when he joined up, and probably saved him from execution for treason in 1916, when he engaged in seditious talk and went AWOL while on leave from the trenches: the execution of the leaders of the Rising had sickened Ledwidge...

But Dunsany intervened behind the scenes on the grounds, it's widely believed, of his poetic talent, and how bad it would look to execute an artist. So he merely lost his lance corporal's stripe.

Dunsany was refused permission to return to the trenches, and survived the war. Ledwidge did not.

Humphreys manages to create the sweep of history with extraordinary finesse, through the eyes of Ledwidge himself, the fiercely rebellious girl with whom he consoled himself after his rejection by Ellie, the kindly manager of the Conyngham Arms hotel in Slane, and the shadowy presence of Dunsany.

Ledwidge is at the New Theatre in Dublin as a celebration of the poet's centenary, and it's beautifully directed by Anthony Fox, with a sensitive, deeply felt performance from Ethan Dillon in the title role, Katie O'Kelly as the boisterous Shivvie, Amy O'Dwyer as the ghostly Ellie, Barbara Dempsey as the hotel proprietor, and Ian Meehan impressive in the dual roles of Dunsany and Ledwidge's boyhood friend.

The production is designed by Orla Reynolds, and lit by Cathy O'Carroll with sound by Ciara McElholm.

********

The immensity of heroism and endurance displayed by Antarctic explorers in the years before telecommunications is hard to comprehend. So to reduce Ernest Shackleton's three year effort to cross the Antarctic continent to something amounting to an elegantly delicate light and shadow show does seem, perhaps, to diminish that immensity and the brutality of the conditions.

When Shackleton's ship Endurance finally went down after having been trapped in ice for months on end, Shackleton and his crew had already been travelling for more than a year, having set out as World War I broke out. They had camped out on the ice for months on end in polar darkness before undertaking the seemingly insane attempt to reach land through the icy seas in three lifeboats. Then there was the diminishing hope as parties were left behind until just Shackleton and two companions (including Tom Crean) finally reached safety, and returned with a rescue party for their stranded companions in 1917.

Having premiered Shackleton in Sligo last year, Blue Raincoat have revived it at Project Arts Centre in Dublin, and the first thing that has to be said is that it is exquisite as well as being technically extremely accomplished. It is a movement piece, with Jocelyn Clarke as dramaturg, and a soundtrack by Joe Hunt.

It's superbly directed by Niall Henry, as the four cast members (John Carty, Barry Cullen, Brian F Devaney and Sandra O'Malley) move their puppet ships through swirling billows of iciness, occasionally appearing as shadowy, desolate human forms isolated in the darkness.

All of this is created by Jamie Vartan's set and Barry McKinney's lighting.

But perhaps it is the beauty of it all which makes it seem to lack heart: comparisons are probably odious, but the soul of Shackleton's extraordinary (if vainglorious) undertaking was more richly served by Aidan Dooley's long-running one-man play Tom Crean, Antarctic Explorer.

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