Monday 20 November 2017

rising to the occasion

Emer O'kelly

It can be credibly argued that Big Jim Larkin, the posthumously idolised hero of Ireland's working class left, betrayed rather than helped the people he inspired to follow him. Like all ideologues (whether left or right) he was brutally heartless when it came to the sufferings of others.

What he failed to realise was that while the employer side of the great lock-out of 1913 was driven by the not necessarily heartless commitment to its own profit, there was another element as implacable and heartless as he was himself: the Catholic Church, as indifferent as he was to the fate of the starving people, he in the name of class conflict, the Church in the name of eternal salvation.

Neither would yield an inch in the trenches of stinking gutters in Dublin's tenement-lined streets. The outcome could only be as tragic as it was. When Mrs Hennessy howls of Larkin that he will "drag us down to hell with him" she's speaking of the terrors of the afterlife painted from the pulpit. There is nobody to explain that Larkin is ensuring another, more immediate hell in which she is being given no choice, in the name of the "holiness" of class warfare.

That dichotomy lies at the heart of James Plunkett's The Risen People, revived at the Abbey in the centenary year of the great Lockout in an adaptation by Jimmy Fay of Jim Sheridan's 1977 version that roars pain, defiance and the bitterness of wisdom. In collaboration with composer Conor Linehan and choreographer Colin Dunne, Fay has produced a great music hall kaleidoscope of street ballads, songs of conflict and melancholy loss, and the great Internationale – the anthem of the left that closes the first half, all played out to the beat of Dubliners' feet, sometimes a defiant march, sometimes an exhausted shuffle.

As O'Casey had done, Plunkett/Fay concentrate on just a few of the "little" lives in the teeming streets: work-shy Hennessy and his weary wife, young Fitz the idealistic foreman and his wife Annie, already fearful of the hopeless future as her baby daughter visibly weakens, Rashers Tierney the old derelict living off what his almost equally destitute neighbours can spare, and Lily Maxwell, who feels no shame for selling herself but is dimly aware there should be a better way of survival.

The eight-month hell of the lockout is graphically told by Fay's spectacularly wonderful cast, dominated, but never diminished, by the video backings of the malign forces to whom they are barely human fodder. They raise the hairs on the back of your neck with the raw ferocity of bewilderment, hope and despair that has always been the lot of the poor throughout history when fairness is used as a political weapon rather than a concept of human decency.

In such situations, the besieged become an army, doomed like all the besieged armies of history, to be starved into ignominious defeat.

We may hope that we have learned a little since 1913, but on opening night of The Risen People, as Rashers lay in the street dying from malnutrition and every filth-borne disease imaginable, and spoke of the "regiments of rats" which had driven him from the stinking hole he called home, an audience member gave a great guffaw of laughter. It was a reminder perhaps, of why Plunkett, anything but heartless, died as defiantly committed to hard left politics as had his mentor, the heartless Larkin.

The production ends with the cast singing Yeats' September 1913 to music by Linehan. But perhaps, "romantic Ireland" being dead and gone and "with O'Leary in the grave" is no bad thing.

We need, as this soaring, eviscerating production so vividly and heartbreakingly demands, an Ireland that is moral, dignified, and built on integrity rather than romance.

Certainly, the Abbey is to be congratulated for bringing us a production that reminds us we still have choices to make, and that perhaps it is not too late to make the right ones despite past failures.

The superb cast is led by Ian Lloyd Anderson as Fitz, Phelim Drew and Hilda Fay as the Hennessys, Joe Hanley as Rashers, and Kate Stanley Brennan as Lily. The towering, gloomy set is by Alyson Cummins, lit by Paul Keogan. Costumes are by Niamh Lunny, sound is by Philip Stewart, video design is by Neil O'Driscoll, and Linehan plays his own score, accompanied by Niwel Tsumbu on guitar.

* * * * *

As in the opening sentence of the book "It is a truth universally acknowledged" that Jane Austen's Pride and Prejudice may be one of the most perfect novels ever written. It is certainly one of the best-loved. So interpreters, whether for stage or screen, mess with it at their peril. And as whoever adapted it (no programme credit) for the current Gate Theatre production in Dublin should have reminded him or herself. The result is not so much a confection as a flat and rather indigestible pancake.

It has been pared down to a barely sketched-in storyline, bereft of the subtleties of either characterisation or context. The result leaves the five Bennet sisters indistinguishable one from the other, and the shame and ruinous scandal of Lydia's elopement merely a social inconvenience. In addition, there is no seeming difference between the social arrogance of Darcy and the dastardly and dishonourable character of Wickham. But this is supposed to be a moral tale of the early 1800s, not Carrigstown in 2013.

Director Alan Stanford may be partly to blame for the lack of variation in the production, (more Whitehall farce than Regency social comedy) but the lack of overall charm seems to lie far more with Lorna Quinn's Elizabeth, played with a rictus grin and snide unpleasantness rather than intelligently wry humour, and Sam O'Mahony's automaton-like Darcy who seems visibly irrelevant throughout rather than being the cynosure of all eyes on stage and in the auditorium. The best of the evening comes from Eleanor Methven's fairly delicious vulgarity as Mrs Bennet and Maeve Fizgerald's plain and sensible Charlotte Lucas, given a plot prominence in this piece that she never received from Miss Austen, but entirely welcome in the rather dispirited whole.

The set has already been seen in previous productions at the Gate, and Bruno Schwengl's costume designs are notable mainly for evidence of what would appear to be an extremely low budget.

One looks in vain for either pride or prejudice to leaven it all. Pity.

Sunday Independent

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