Tuesday 17 July 2018

Jimmy's story is worthy, but uneven

Emer O'Kelly finds a social message is a bit of a curate's egg at the national theatre

The dancing and singing in 'Jimmy's Hall' is a marvel from the ensemble cast
The dancing and singing in 'Jimmy's Hall' is a marvel from the ensemble cast

The Jimmy Hall story is a great idea. It never goes astray to remind people in any generation that "the price of freedom is eternal vigilance" - and repression is insidious when its victims collude in their own victimisation.

Jimmy Gralton was an Irish communist deported from his country for his communism in 1933. Written baldly, that seems ludicrous. But in our self-satisfied 21st century Ireland, there are as many threats to freedom of thought and expression.

Eamon de Valera thought the people did not have the right to be wrong; today, howls of outrage at unpopular political opinions and calls for them to be repressed are not exactly unusual.

Cut it where you may, repression/censorship is ugly and dangerous. And there are many examples around today which can be summed up with the maxim that freedom seems to be what those in the majority/ascendant deem it to be.

In Ireland of the 1930s, it was virulently right-wing Roman Catholic bigotry, and a fervently pro-fascist political stance which the vast majority of the population accepted as ethical and desirable.

If there was one thing both sides in the bitter post-Civil War Ireland agreed upon, it was a dour loathing of both the outside world (as represented by England) and intellectual freedom.

Adapted by director Graham McLaren from Paul Laverty's filmscript of the same name, Jimmy's Hall "tells" the story of the returned emigrant Jimmy Gralton and the social club and dancehall he founded in Leitrim.

Jimmy Gralton was openly subversive of the accepted order of life, and believed (as so many people still do) that Pearse and Connolly and their colleagues would have nurtured freedom, internationalism, intellectualism, and a joyously open order of everything from sexuality to gender equality and what are now called gay rights. Perhaps he needed a more realistic perspective.

According to this production, Gralton thought dance was the answer to everything. Maybe. But the idea of James Connolly encouraging anything so frivolous in the face of the serious task of establishing a Marxist republic is ridiculous: the Soviet Union in the 1930s wasn't exactly a field of dreams.

And the notion of Pearse, the arch language/cultural bigot encouraging a joyous romp to the scratchy sound of a jazz record smuggled in from New York (as Gralton reputedly smuggled them) is even more ridiculous.

It wasn't surprising that Gralton was "read from the pulpit", as were the few free spirits who dared to fraternise with him. That was to be expected. But it would have gone no further had it not been for his open espousal of "Godless communism".

That, plus the fact that he held a US passport, ensured the collusion of Church and State in the outrage of flinging him out of his own country.

But the real weakness in McLaren's production is his choice of format, a kind of cross between agitprop and Riverdance. Of the two, the latter is both dominant - and by far the more successful of the two streams.

There's an uneasy Brechtian alienation in the semi-documentary style of what passes for the action - a declamatory deadness entirely alien from the wild enthusiasm of Vicki Manderson's choreography.

And that choreography in itself is out of tune with reality: Irish dance was staid to the point of dreariness until comparatively recently, and Gralton's hall would have been a gloomy spot with only its founder's spirit as a source of light.

For that too, lighting designer Sarah Jane Shiels is out of touch. When the avenging parish priest enters he switches on the lights to catch out his recalcitrant flock; in 1932, the hall would have been lit by a tilly lamp and a couple of candles: a poor place withal.

Nor would one of the local women have got away without being penitentially shriven had she dared to wear dungarees, as does Tess (Ruth McGill).

McLaren clearly wants to highlight the horror of 1930s Ireland. But in reality he misses out on the dreariness.

And that was as much down to poverty as to fear, ignorance and surly bigotry.

However the dancing and singing is a marvel from the ensemble cast, even if their requirement imposes certain acting limitations, with only Brid Ni Neachtain as Gralton's mother, Lisa Lambe as his girlfriend, Bosco Hogan as the priest, and Ruth McGill managing to convince as members of a small farming community.

Even Richard Clements in the title role is limited, but that is probably due to the required rigidly declamatory style imposed on him.

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