Wednesday 17 January 2018

Stage: Play shows Collins from public and private angles

Stepping into Neeson’s shoes: Dominic MacHale plays Michael Collins in The Great Arrangement
Stepping into Neeson’s shoes: Dominic MacHale plays Michael Collins in The Great Arrangement

Maggie Armstrong

Commemorations have fallen thick and fast on theatres this year. If one character has recurred through the frenzy, it's the outsider.

Theatre-makers have seen to it that the minor players of 1916 and later violent years are not forgotten: the poor civilians in Sean O'Casey's Dublin plays; the Sons of Ulster Marching Towards the Somme to their deaths in Frank McGuinness's alternative 1916 play; the rural dreamers who fought and died in Deirdre Kinahan's Wild Sky.

I've seen stage renditions of Roger Casement, The O'Rahilly, Madame de Markievicz and others who weren't shot in Kilmainham. I've been stuck standing in hoary Kilmainham for two hours while Signatories channelled the leaders of 1916 alongside less remembered figures like Nurse Elizabeth O'Farrell.

But if there's one fighting Irish who won't be forgotten, it's Michael Collins. Just last night I was having tea in Wynn's Hotel, thinking about a new play by Pat Talbot, to find Collins staring down at me from a portrait on the wall.

"As a nation, we are obsessed with this man. He has endured," says Talbot, who has written, directed and produced A Great Arrangement. This documentary play is based on letters, newspaper reports and Dáil debates that show another side to the Big Fella, Talbot believes.

"Traditionally, he's presented as the man of action, the warrior, the soldier who brought the British Empire to its knees. But this is Collins, the reluctant plenipotentiary, the pragmatic politician, the budding statesman."

Talbot - who ran The Everyman in Cork for 10 years and has worked in theatre since the age of 19 when he stage-managed the Irish National Ballet under Joan Denise Moriarty - recently rolled out a talent for adapting texts for the stage. His superb trio of Frank O'Connor stories, God Bless the Child, has been on the road for months.

A Great Arrangement opened in March in the new Gardens Theatre in Cork (to hot and cold reviews), and is about to hit The Everyman before touring. Talbot set upon making the play when he came across Collins's speeches in books and footage. "Being a person of the theatre, I was immediately struck by how these speeches were written by an orator. I found these speeches quite stirring. He was a brilliant performer, he used his whole body to express himself. We try to recreate that energy and passion in the play."

The job of taking Michael Collins out of Liam Neeson's hands falls to a newcomer, Dominic MacHale. Collins's sweetheart, hotelier and shopkeeper Kitty Kiernan is played by the fresh-faced Irene Kelleher.

The play (which I have read but cannot attest to having sat through yet) takes place in 1921/22. Every line is verbatim from history, and the chosen extracts show the revolutionary leader from public and private angles.

This Michael Collins is a celebrity figure in London, negotiating the Treaty, writing yearning letters to Kiernan in Co Longford.

The self-taught 30-year-old goes to the theatre, to see Heartbreak House by George Bernard Shaw. He meets Shaw, who lends him his jaunty support. He is asked to pose for a Tatler magazine shoot. He sits for the society painter Sir John Lavery, but describes it as "torture" because he can't sit still. "He had constant media requests," says Talbot. "They all wanted a piece of him."

Harry Boland, who Kiernan left at the altar, features juicily when Collins usurps him. (The film had it right - this was a tortured love triangle.) Collins's letters to Kiernan are shy. For Talbot, the sheer number of missives shows his love for her, dispelling rumours of a playboy Collins - "the fact that at times he found time to write two and three letters a day to Kitty Kiernan… A constant theme is trying to make the post or the postman."

He buys "Kit" a watch and "the best editions" of books, tells her he is "hungry" for her; that he feels "nervous" at the thought of her dressed up "on the naked side" at a dance. He sends her "fondest love and a sweet caress".

Kiernan pleads with him to go to Confession and Communion in London. She sends him an elegant striped tie. They quarrel, and Collins vents: "I am not demonstrative, except in showing my temper sometimes. I'm on the side of those who do things, not just those who say things."

The leader who boils with passion for Ireland is unable to express his feeling for the woman he loves. And then he goes to Béal na Bláth 94 years ago - which this play will mark when it reopens on August 22. As Talbot says: "He and Kitty Kiernan had got engaged in January of 1922 and planned to get married in August of 1922 but of course, that didn't happen."

A Great Arrangement opens at the Everyman, Cork on August 22 and tours to the Town Hall, Skibbereen; Lime Tree, Limerick; Gaiety, Dublin (Sept 12-17); Backstage, Longford and MAC, Belfast.

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