Destructive passion from 1798 to 1916
Two fine productions link the threads of our bloodstained history, writes Emer O'Kelly
At one stage in Stewart Parker's Northern Star, the Captain of Dragoons hunting down the 1798 rebels in the rebellion aftermath, tells Henry Joy McCracken: "Ireland's history has been one long civil war."
And it's hard to disagree when watching this extraordinary play, given a remarkable new production by Rough Magic at Project in Dublin (and touring to Glasgow and Belfast) and directed by Lynne Parker.
The premise concentrates on McCracken, son of well-off Presbyterian merchants in Belfast and inspired by the notion of a State ruled by rationalism and equality rather than privilege and religion, and a founding member of the United Irishmen two years after the French Revolution.
Now, nearly a decade later, after unspeakable savagery and bloodshed, he hides out with his lover and their infant daughter, waiting for the inevitable capture, ignominy and execution. And he reflects on Ireland's history, its aspirations, and its reality: our lip service to noble decency, and our visceral tribalism which makes us cannibalise each other and our society.
His lover, Mary Bodle, wants to know "Why did you allow yourself to resort to the gun?" But she too rants of the horrors of torture she and her "tribe" of Catholicism have suffered at the hands of the "others:" no mention of the horrors perpetrated by her own "side." And as Henry's fevered imagination ranges across the last ten years of his life, his dramatic inventor clothes his bitter thoughts in the music hall fantasy of what is yet to come: our post 1798 history as it will be played out in "song and story" (Wilde, O'Casey, Sheridan, even Behan and O'Casey as well as Beckett (here a prison sequence with Henry and his companions, de-humanised figures on a dirty protest). And it all comes back to a tribalism personified in religion. It destroyed McCracken's ideal of being united against the "real enemy." As expounded by Parker's McCracken, the enemy is another "others": the powerful in control of capital, in land or commerce.
And as the play ends as McCracken, his dreams in ruins, mounts the scaffold, we are forced (or should be forced ) to the question: "Why does there have to be an enemy?" The answer, of course, is because this is Ireland.
Parker has gathered a Rough Magic stalwart cast, and they do her proud: Paul Mallon as the anchor figure of Henry, with Charlotte McCurry as Mary Bodle, and a support of Darragh Kelly, Rory Nolan, Richard Clements, Eleanor Methven, Ali White and Robbie O'Connor.
The set and lighting, a cross between post-modernism and Brechtian alienation, are by Zia Holly. Sound is by Ivan Birthistle, with costumes by Joan O'Clery.
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Put together seven of our most revered writers; throw in an eminent barrister and mediator who has published widely; ask each of them to write a ten-minute monologue on one of the signatories of the Proclamation. What emerges is likely to be extraordinary; and indeed Signatories is extraordinary, produced by Verdant in the unrelieved dark chill of Kilmainham gaol, and directed by Patrick Mason.
Their various subjects seem to have struck the authors with profoundly differing aspects of the seven men. But it is the driving similarity which is most startling: these men, in the words put in their mouths, all subjugated everything to their blind, pulsing passion for one woman: Caitlin Ni Houlihan. It left them emotionally arid in other aspects of their lives, almost mindlessly destroying those closest to them in the process
For instance, Eilis Ni Dhuibhne conjures up Sean MacDiarmada through the words of Min Ryan (Roseanna Purcell) describing her final meeting in his cell, minutes before his execution. Mini is referred to in later years as his fiancee, but he had never kissed her, and did not even want to be alone with her to say goodbye, asking for her sister Phyllis to be present. He sat with an arm around each of them.
Joseph O'Connor does write with fond romanticism of Joseph Mary Plunkett, married to the pregnant Grace Gifford in the gaol the night before his execution. But Plunkett's favourite sister wrote in old age that Gifford's pregnancy (which she later miscarried) was not Joe's; and she implied strongly that her brother was gay. So much for Plunkett's gently wry reference to their "ten-minute marriage", beautifully delivered by Sean O'Farrell.
The most successful (and quietly passionate) piece is Thomas Kilroy's portrayal of Pearse (Peter Gaynor): it includes the less than attractive elements of his life and attitudes, and gives us a chilling, almost demented portrayal of a driven man which yet manages to be both sympathetic and humane in its fanatical lack of any real humanity.
But from the moment that Elizabeth O'Farrell (Barbara Brennan) appears, white flag in hand, as she recalls in old age her nightmare journey of May 1916, calling on the various occupations to surrender, as written by Emma Donoghue, this production is a perfection and a privilege: theatre, not history, but as thought-provoking as was the intent.
See Page 11 for review of 'Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf?' at the Gate