Sunday 25 February 2018

Theatre: Loss under a wild sky

Troubled times: Ian Toner and Caitriona Ennis as the lovers Tom Farrell and Josie Dunn.
Troubled times: Ian Toner and Caitriona Ennis as the lovers Tom Farrell and Josie Dunn.

Emer O'Kelly

A few minutes in to Deirdre Kinahan's Wild Sky, the 18-year-old protagonist Tom Farrell, reflecting on his part in Easter week 1916, speaks bitterly of "the endless executions". So we know where the play's heart lies. And further on, he reflects "What was there to escape to?...More hunger. More lockouts. More dead babies. Consumptive wives. The degradation of the docks?"

There were 16 executions following the Rising; politically unwise as they were, they were certainly not "endless". Degradation, hunger, social injustice and early pitiful death were the lot of the urban poor worldwide in the early twentieth century - in Liverpool, London, New York, Paris, Hamburg and Amsterdam the same recognisably ravaged faces haunted the filthy streets.

Neither is it often pointed out that the Dublin and Limerick faces remained as haunted in a sovereign state as ever they had been under the Crown, in many cases taking brutal steps backward. (Mountjoy Gaol was a model of international modernity and humanity when it was built in the 19th century, with the unheard of dignity for prisoners of in-cell sanitation. It took a native Irish government to remove that in the 1930s, and return the prisoners to the degradation of chamber-pots and slopping out.)

But if Kinahan's heart takes a stand in her new play, it does not overwhelm her writing skills. Wild Sky is a soaringly touching piece, taking the tiny canvas of a love story between a boy and girl and giving it the compass of inevitable, pre-destined loneliness and loss.

It was commissioned by Meath County Council, and emphasises the Rising as seen from the streets and fields of Slane, where young Josie Dunn, bright enough to be considered as teacher material, instead takes an apprenticeship in the local draper's shop: her mother needs the money to help rear the younger ones.

Tom Farrell has always had eyes only for Josie, but her heart is set on his friend, the flamboyant Mike Lowry. Come 1915, Mike (like his unmentioned, invisible neighbour Francis Ledwidge) enlists. But Josie has been caught up in dreams of Gaelic Ireland, and equally dangerously in dreams of equality for women.

Her influence on Tom leads to him running desperately with his companions from the flaming GPO, breath rasping and terror at his heels as the Tommies' guns rake their retreat.

Josie's journey, though, is shorter than his will be: the call for the priest to attend her as she coughs up her life while longing to fight "as is woman's right". In this wonderful production directed by Jo Mangan and produced by David Teevan, the story of Josie Dunn and Tom Farrell plays out as an epic pageant on an empty grey stage designed by Niamh Lunny. It is orchestrated by songs performed live by Mary Murray as an eternal mourning figure in a performance that shows her singing talents to be as remarkable as her acting. And the young lovers, Caitriona Ennis and Ian Toner, catch your breath in your throat in the searing, beauteous simplicity of their tragedy.

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