Tuesday 27 September 2016

Abbey Theatre hopes to 'wake' the nation in 2016

The national theatre hopes 2016 will question our achievements, writes drama critic Emer O'Kelly

Emer O'Kelly

Published 01/11/2015 | 02:30

Director Fiach MacConghail
Director Fiach MacConghail

The national theatre has announced its programme of commemoration for the centenary of 1916. Director Fiach MacConghail, (the programme will mark the end of his tenure), emphasises that it is aimed at interrogating rather than celebrating the past. The overall title is deliberately ambiguous: Waking the Nation.

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MacConghail is long on record as considering himself "a bit of an old-fashioned republican". That in itself can have ambiguous connotations; but at the launch of his programme he reminded his audience that the 'Abbey rebels' (the men and women who left the theatre to join the Rising volunteers) did not distinguish between the role of culture and independence, theatre and politics. Plays, Mac Conghail said, have the power to ask questions and resonate for generations.

In that context, it is worth noting that he is the first director of the Abbey in modern times to be overtly political: we have to go back to the time of Ernest Blythe for a comparison. Blythe was a former government Minister in Cumann na nGaedhael but is better known as the man who stifled artistic freedom and intellectual discourse in the Abbey throughout his long tenure from 1941 to 1967.

That can never be an accusation against MacConghail: if anything, he may be accused in the future of having been too overtly involved in artistic resonances for political life.

Mac Conghail has chosen three classics from the national theatre repertoire to feature in the 2016 Waking the Nation programme. The first of these, not surprisingly, is O'Casey's The Plough and the Stars, which the author intended, ten years after the Rising when it was first staged, to be a savage indictment of the entire notion of blood sacrifice. During the Blythe years in the Abbey, it was staged frequently, but always as a glorification and celebration of the Rising. It has only been in recent years that directors have approached the play differently, although I have yet to see O'Casey's purpose fully realised as the indictment he intended it to be of the vainglory and pointlessness of 1916.

In fact, Juno and the Paycock, set during the Civil War with all the vicious bitterness that the Rising had engendered, might actually be a more suitable "interrogation" of the meaning of our Republic: certainly in O'Casey's eyes we had already by then failed to create equality or brotherhood, and were already engaged in devouring the notion of nationhood in faction-fighting and the blind political prejudice of a nationalism which actually denied the principles of republicanism.

And of course, more than half a century after O'Casey's death it is still possible to argue that with education and health still controlled by the Catholic Church, we have not yet even begun to achieve a republic, which O'Casey and republicans back to Wolfe Tone, believed had to be secular in fact and essence.

The second classic chosen is Frank McGuinness' Observe the Sons of Ulster Marching Towards the Somme, from the 1980s. It is actually a stark contrast to O'Casey's three great tenement plays in that it is a celebration rather than an indictment. McGuinness takes a group of Ulster volunteers in the Great War, almost all of whom will be wiped out in the slaughter of the Somme; he celebrates them unstintingly for their humanity, their political naivete and their comradeship. And he views them through the old age of the only survivor, a man who has lived his life in the shadows because of his homosexuality, despite coming home to what was intended as a "land fit for heroes." Once again, his society has failed him, as southern society failed its sons and daughters.

The third play chosen for a revival is Tom Murphy's The Wake, first produced in 1997. Superficially the story of a family in a rural town, and strife over a will (a returned emigrant daughter has inherited the family business, leaving her family stunned) the play is much more than that: it encapsulates modern Ireland, where as always, nothing is as it seems, although we still, albeit waveringly, try to pretend that nothing has changed. The returned Vera, about to become queen of the small world which has rejected her, has in the interim become part of the great world that Ireland pretends not to acknowledge: she has been a call girl in New York.

This historic encapsulation of a century of Ireland is counter-pointed by a production of Othello, Shakespeare's great play of political self-delusion and pursuit of power, with a pivotal line used not too long ago to chilling effect by an already disgraced Irish politician: "I have done the State some service; they know't."

If those four plays in themselves (under thoughtful direction), make us ask ourselves some questions, MacConghail will have indeed done the State some service, even without the commissioning of what sound like some interesting and provocative new plays by David Ireland and Sean Summers, as well as a musical by Phillip McMahon and Raymond Scannell about an old woman in inner Dublin about to be "exiled" to her sister's house in the outer suburbs. But while that may well encapsulate the insecurities of modern urban life, one does have to question the inclusion of a musical in the centenary programme for a company which was set up solely for, and made its reputation on, literary theatre.

There seems to be Government approval of the programme at large, since no fewer than three ministers attended the announcement, and funding has come from numerous sources which will permit for touring of various aspects, including to London and New York. But despite this, one has to wonder whether there is willingness on the part of our policy makers to accept reality when the Tanaiste Joan Burton said at the launch that "2016 will belong to everyone on this island and to our friends and families overseas regardless of political background".

We may be prepared to make a present of our notion of republicanism to everyone; but perhaps it is time to realise that not everybody wants to accept it, including "everyone on this island". And perhaps that realisation might be the first step towards actually achieving a Republic. Maybe even acknowledging that democratic parliamentarianism should be our goal, since constitutional monarchies have in many cases far exceeded our goals of equality and inclusiveness? After all, Sean O'Casey chose to live most of his life in Torquay.

Sunday Independent

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