Friday 25 May 2018

The Rising's 'Riverdance' moment with 'Centenary'

Viewers tuned in to RTE's Centenary concert were united in admiration for the skill with which it reflected our national identity. What were the magic ingredients?

Dancers Chantal McCormick and Vanassa Guevara opened RTE’s 'Centenary' at the Bord Gais Energy Theatre. Photo: Frank McGrath
Dancers Chantal McCormick and Vanassa Guevara opened RTE’s 'Centenary' at the Bord Gais Energy Theatre. Photo: Frank McGrath
Aoife Scott, Danny O’Reilly and Roisin O’Reilly performed ‘Grace’ from Kilmainham Gaol. Photo: Andres Poveda
Anthem: Imelda May
Concert producer Cillian Fennell
Ed Power

Ed Power

It has been heralded as this generation's Riverdance moment. After the pageantry of the Easter Rising parade on Sunday, it was assumed that the weekend of commemorations was winding down. But with the heartfelt and swooningly choreographed Centenary on Monday, RTE delivered a moving evocation of what it means to be Irish in the 21st century.

Those old enough to remember described experiencing the same tingle they had felt when Michael Flatley and Jean Butler high-stepped across the stage for the first time in 1994.

The evening of music, dance and spoken word was doubly emotive because it was so light on its feet. Even the biggest history buff may have felt slightly overwhelmed by the endless 1916 coverage across recent weeks and months.

What set Centenary apart was that it looked to the future as much as to the past and acknowledged that modern Irishness is a glorious and complicated thing. It celebrated but never condescended, allowed us to take pride yet recognise the pain that has marked our journey as an independent state.

Moreover, Centenary did so with self-awareness and an easy charm, as demonstrated in the sequence in which Imelda May powerfully crooned the Kermit The Frog standard (It's Not Easy) Bein' Green. Who'd have imagined a rockabilly singer belting out a show-tune made famous by a Muppet would so perfectly encapsulate the feelings we've all experienced in this week of anniversaries?

Centenary was 10 months in the planning and, in the weekend leading up, had been fine-tuned with meticulous rehearsals under the gaze of creator Cilian Fennell, former head of productions at TG4 and producer of The Late Late Show.

His brief had been to come up with a modern telling of the foundation of the State, one which acknowledged the sacrifices of those who had participated in the Rising even as it presented their strivings in the context of the nation we have since built.

In doing so he quite consciously took a number of gambles. The sequence in which Danny O'Reilly of The Coronas recited the traditional ballad Grace with his sister Roisin O and cousin Aoife Scott inside Kilmainham Gaol was extraordinarily risky on paper - a potential car-crash in the making (even if you love The Coronas it is fair to say they are not synonymous with dignified remembrances).

Yet in the moment it came together stunningly, the trio doing justice to verses written by Frank and Sean O'Meara about Grace Gifford, who married Rising participant Joseph Plunkett before his execution in the very building where the three performers sang.

The national broadcaster had certainly pumped a great many resources into the production. In all, 600 people worked on Centenary, with an incredible 21 choirs performing, assisted by 18 dancers, 10 actors, six aerial performers and the RTE concert orchestra (and let's not forget the 80-strong production team behind the scenes).

With just 85 minutes, Fennell had the challenge of respectfully referencing 100 or so years of Irish history, from the Rising and its aftermath, the suffragette movement, the impact of the Great War via church abuse scandals and Italia 90.

Cannily, he had assembled a diverse range of musical talents, including trad figures such as Donal Lunny and Sharon Shannon, sean nos singer Iarla O Lionaird and the more contemporary Jack L and Gavin James (and the aforementioned Imelda May).

"RTE approached me last May. They wanted something for the Monday night that would turn what was a commemoration into a celebration," says Fennell, speaking exclusively to the Irish Independent.

"They wanted to do a cultural piece... it was to be grounded in the Rising. But we didn't want to stop at the Rising. The country still had to be built. Our parents gave an awful lot.

"It was important to acknowledge their courage, vision and sacrifice."

The production had four beats: awakening, arising, aspiring and arriving, said Fennell. The choice of U2's One as a music centre piece was arrived at early.

"One is a huge Irish song. It said everything we wanted to say. We wanted a big, theatrical performance which is why we asked Colm Wilkinson. This was a show - not a concert."

They reached out to many performers, not all of whom were available. But in hindsight Fennell believes they achieved the perfect line-up of artists who could sing but also tell a story.

"We asked Gavin [James] to sing The Foggy Dew and had Imelda take a turn on Bein' Green. That's an incredible song - it's about being hard on yourself but also about accepting who you are. We're acknowledging that we have of course had our troubles."

Cleverly Centenary borrowed from some of Irish broadcasting's most beloved traditions. In particular, the show evoked the ever-popular Reeling In The Years as it conveyed the sweep of the past century of Irish life with compellingly assembled montages.

There were also pre-recorded cuts to Kilmainham Gaol and the Garden of Remembrance, which grounded the production in gritty historical realities and brought a crucial solemnity.

One of the most moving elements came as the 1916 Proclamation was read by citizens around the world to the strains of Sean O'Riada's Mise Eire, the best national anthem the country never had.

We have, it is true, had endless 1916 nostalgia across recent weeks and some of us would gladly would have never laid eyes on another Padraig Pearse portrait again. This was different.

We weren't watching actors or historical re-enactors on screen - it was ordinary people across the globe remembering what it was that made us special.

"We're famous for our diaspora," says Fennell. "Not only do we claim Ireland, we claim Ireland's place in the world. The best way to visually represent that was to ask people around the world to read the Proclamation."

He is flattered people would liken Centenary to Riverdance. "I remember watching Riverdance at home and giving it a standing ovation on the telly. It is huge, huge accolade."

Yet for all that, the producer does not seem particularly shocked at the reception. Fennell and his team had spent the previous eight days bunkered down at Bord Gais Energy Theatre, putting the show through its final paces.

As it all came together, Fennell had a sense that they might just carry the challenge off. The big imponderable up until the end was whether the various elements would form a cohesive whole. That was the real challenge.

"In the past week we were thinking 'my god every scene is working'. The question was would they all work in a row. We hadn't seen it all together in a flow. We did a Sunday night ironing out dress rehearsal and then we knew. We sensed that it was going to work."

Centenary: The best bits from a night of highlights

Colm Wilkinson sings One: The humanity of U2's ballad was conveyed by the giant of musical theatre while video screens showed images of ordinary Irish people.

Imelda May sings (It's Not Easy) Bein' Green: The Muppet favourite is commonly assumed to be a comedic number. Yet May imbued it with pathos and self-awareness, turning the droll dirge into an unlikely alternative anthem.

Danny O'Reilly, Roisin O and Aoife Scott sing Grace: Shot in Kilmainham Gaol, this was a heartfelt rendering of a song best known as a closing-hour singalong. The performers stripped away the folksiness and the tune's deeper sorrows shine.

The reading of the Proclamation: Who among us didn't well up a little as a young girl stood atop the Hill of Tara and recited the first lines of the Proclamation, further verses relayed by people from around the world?

Irish Independent

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