Tuesday 22 October 2019

TV3's Trial of the Century - 'ambitious, intelligent and provocative - roll on Sunday and Monday night'

Darragh McManus

Darragh McManus

TV3’s three-part 1916 drama Trial of the Century, which began tonight, sets out its stall from the jump. In a pre-opening credits sequence, we are told, “Between May 3rd and May 12th 1916, the senior leaders of the Easter Rising were executed by British forces. Their deaths turned the tide of public opinion and changed the course of Irish history.

“But what if the executions never happened?

“The British were able to prove that the rebels had conspired with their wartime enemy – Germany. As evidence of the German plot, they used a letter written by Patrick Pearse. Without this letter the British may have been forced to give the leaders a full trial.”

Cut to Pearse (Tom Vaughan-Lawlor) writing the aforesaid letter, to his mother, in which he incriminates himself and his colleagues. A sympathetic priest stops him sending it, arguing that a day in court will serve the cause better. Meanwhile the British authorities are told by their legal experts that, under the Defence of the Realm Act, they can only hand down the death penalty if the rebels are proved to have assisted the enemy.

Pictured in Green Street Courthouse, Tom Vaughan Lawlor stars as Padraig Pearse in TV3s new 1916 commemorative three-part series Trial of the Century.
Pictured in Green Street Courthouse, Tom Vaughan Lawlor stars as Padraig Pearse in TV3s new 1916 commemorative three-part series Trial of the Century.

Pearse, ever in love with easeful death, insists that the whole thing must end in martyrdom. Like a character out of a Don DeLillo novel, the man seems to have had an unerring sense of political act as theatre or performance art.

His hand is stayed, literally; the letter is never sent, thus there is a trial. And so we’re into TV3’s alternate-history drama, which concludes tomorrow and Monday night at 9pm.

Trial of the Century on TV3 - Episode 1 - Mark Huberman as George Gavan Duffy
Trial of the Century on TV3 - Episode 1 - Mark Huberman as George Gavan Duffy

Hugh Travers and Colin Murphy’s screenplay imagines how that legalistic showdown might have gone. In the Crown’s corner, lead prosecutor Sebastian Banks (Andrew Bennett). In the Irish corner, Pearse’s senior counsel Edward Greene (Denis Conway). And in the balance, the fate of several men – and possibly an entire nation.

This first episode of Trial of the Century had a tight, literate script, which manages to make labyrinthine matters comprehensible, and dry legal arguments entertaining. The tension is palpable; you get that tingle that something momentous is about to happen here.

Trial of the Century on TV3 - Episode 1 - Aoibhinn McGinnity as mum Catherine Foster
Trial of the Century on TV3 - Episode 1 - Aoibhinn McGinnity as mum Catherine Foster

The show also boasts top-notch acting across the board. Vaughan-Lawlor will probably, and understandably, get most of the attention, and he’s as excellent as you’d expect (once you tell your brain to shut up about the fact that Nidge has gone back to the past). But the others are just as good, especially Bennet, who gives a subtle, nuanced portrayal of a complex and, I felt, honourable man.

The main problem for me is something that’s probably impossible to solve: Trial of the Century looks and feels like, and essentially is, a stage-play transplanted to television.

Pictured in Green Street Courthouse, Andrew Bennett stars as lead prosecutor Sebastian Banks in TV3s new 1916 commemorative three-part series Trial of the Century. Picture: Brian McEvoy
Pictured in Green Street Courthouse, Andrew Bennett stars as lead prosecutor Sebastian Banks in TV3s new 1916 commemorative three-part series Trial of the Century. Picture: Brian McEvoy

Almost all the action takes place within one smallish room. While director Maurice Sweeney does his best by keeping the cameras moving and switching perspectives, there’s only so much you can do in a situation like this: it’s still a group of people debating in a room.

While the viewer has no problem accepting that in live theatre, for some reason the eye or mind doesn’t like it so much on a screen. I guess we’re conditioned to expect more edits and changes of scenery and outdoor shots and all the rest; one (virtually static) setting just doesn’t sit well with the TV-watching brain.

Pictured in Green Street Courthouse, David Heap stars as Judge Bonham in TV3s new 1916 commemorative three-part series Trial of the Century. Picture: Brian McEvoy
Pictured in Green Street Courthouse, David Heap stars as Judge Bonham in TV3s new 1916 commemorative three-part series Trial of the Century. Picture: Brian McEvoy

That aside, Trial of the Century is ambitious, intelligent and provocative. It ends on a nicely dramatic note too, with Pearse – himself a barrister – sacking his legal counsel and declaring that he will defend himself. I look forward to seeing how it plays out.

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