Saturday 16 December 2017

Stage: Sign on the dotted line...

Kilmainham Gaol, Dublin. Photo: Deposit
Kilmainham Gaol, Dublin. Photo: Deposit

Sophie Gorman

Patrick Pearse, James Connolly, Thomas Clarke, Thomas MacDonagh, Séan Mac Diarmada, Joseph Plunkett, Éamonn Ceannt… and Elizabeth O'Farrell. Yes, the seven men are the seven signatories of the Irish Proclamation who were all executed in Kilmainham Gaol in May 1916. Yes, Elizabeth O'Farrell lived on until 1957. But O'Farrell played such a pivotal part in our Rising, bravely delivering the white flag of surrender amidst heavy gunfire on Moore Street, that it seems fitting that the integral female engagement be recognised in a new production, Signatories.

Signatories premières this month in Kilmainham Gaol on the actual centenary of the Rising, from April 22 to 24. A UCD concept, it features eight monologues written by eight writers who are all alumni of Belfield. An impressive list they are too, with a more evenly balanced gender divide than the original signatories had themselves. Emma Donoghue is writing about Elizabeth O'Farrell; Thomas Kilroy has Patrick Pearse; Rachel Fehily has Thomas Clarke; Éilís Ní Dhuibhne has Seán Mac Diarmada; Marina Carr has Thomas MacDonagh; Hugo Hamilton has James Connolly; Joseph O'Connor has Joseph Mary Plunkett and Frank McGuinness has Éamonn Ceannt.

"This was really all Frank's idea," explains Signatories director Patrick Mason. "Frank is currently the professor of Creative Writing at UCD and he came up with this idea to call up various UCD alumni to contribute to this major artistic project.

"The original idea was to invite a writer to respond to a figure from the 1916 Rising, each writer would compose a 10 to 15 minute dramatic monologue, a talking head. Everyone sort of picked their own person, Frank was very interested in Éamonn Ceannt, Tom Kilroy was fascinated with Pearse, Emma Donoghue chose Elizabeth O'Farrell. No one had a person forced on them.

"When I came on board last September, my first thought was one I then feared I might live to regret, that it would play out as a series of encounters. The actors stay static and the audience move around."

Mason explains that these are very intense encounters. Some of the figures you are meeting directly, but interestingly some of the responses from the writers have been more oblique.

O'Farrell was 32 at the time of the Rising but she didn't actually die until 1957, and here we meet an older Elizabeth looking back on this time, played by Barbara Brennan. We will discover Séan Mac Diarmada through the eyes of his partner Min Ryan. Even more oblique, we will see James Connolly through the eyes of a young Irishwoman living in Birmingham in the 1970s. But what is her connection to Connolly? "You'll have to wait and see."

This production is using the whole east wing of the prison, its corridors and its staircases, but the only one who was actually imprisoned there was Plunkett. So Mason says not to expect to experience proselytising death speeches.

"We were looking for somewhere that we could stage a huge promenade production and Kilmainham obviously works in practical terms. The benefit of Kilmainham is obviously the space, but the downside is that it encourages a sort of historical literalism." And by "huge", Mason does indeed mean huge. They will have audiences of 300 for each show, a sizeable crowd to be corralled.

"We worked it out so that this production could be site-specific, but also that it could tour, with the monologues appearing sequentially on stage."

Signatories is travelling on to the National Concert Hall, Pavilion Theatre and the Civic Theatre. (

Looking at the list of writers, you might be forgiven for assuming Joseph O'Connor would write a very traditional interpretation of events and that Emma Donoghue would cast an outsider's eye on things?

"And you would be very wrong. All these eight writers have shown an ear and an eye for the contradictions and the complexities of these real people. This is not an act of group piety to the national myth It is an attempt to put real flesh on these bones, to get inside the heads of these people. For instance, Tom Kilroy's Pearse is an extraordinary creature, a very conflicted figure with his English father and the whole ambiguity of his sexuality and his whole relationship to his physicality versus ideology," says Mason.

"This is trying to creatively imagine the mindset and evoke the physical being of these people. It is an attempt to hear them and experience them again in the light of what we know but as real people. Writers are writers and they are going to look for the little gaps in our records, and work out the true characters behind the legends."

Did any interpretation surprise the director?

"I was struck by the fact that there is no glossing over. The men are the ideologues, they are the fanatical ones. With certain characters, there is a strong element of Anglophobia and even racism, they are creatures of their time. What is interesting to me, though, is that all of the writers have captured a striking moment of naked humanity."

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