Monday 11 December 2017

Theatre: Markievicz - a stupid, arrogant snob

Trial Barbara Dempsey stars as the Countess in Madame de Markievicz.
Trial Barbara Dempsey stars as the Countess in Madame de Markievicz.

Yet another 1916 commemorative work of art; yet another revered and celebrated figure under the microscope. This time it's by Ann Matthews, an academic who has already written two books, Dissidents and Renegades, about Irish women and their part in the Rising and its aftermath. Her aim was to detach the women from what she sees as the isolationism of the feminist narrative, and place them in the mainstream so their reputations could sink or swim, as it were, without being either dismissed or idolised.

Her play, Madame de Markievicz on Trial, an in-house production at The New Theatre in Dublin, continues that theme.

The piece is more drama -documentary than play: there is no action as such, and the audience is addressed throughout. The text is based on witness accounts, memoirs, and official papers from the time, and is set in 1917, after Constance's release from prison under the amnesty for those arrested after the Rising, and during her incarceration for subsequent seditious speech-making.

A fictional Queen's Counsel conducts a "trial," in which he calls various witnesses to the Countess's life and work. They range from the aunt of the unarmed Catholic policeman she shot at point blank range on Stephen's Green during Easter Week, to the adoring and dazzled Helena Molony (the Abbey actor who also took part in the Rising) to Dr Kathleen Lynn, the feminist and humanitarian, to the young nurse who attended the dying policeman. The picture is built up relentlessly, if in a slightly stilted form: the story of her life "presented" in the form of questioning from prosecuting counsel.

And Constance Markievicz emerges as what can best be described as a total cow: stupid, arrogant, snobbish, posturing, insensitive and manipulative, a far cry from Yeats's lines about her and her sister Eva: "two girls in silk kimonos, both beautiful, one a gazelle." Until Easter Week, Constance merely "dabbled," her nationalist/republican involvement rather along the lines of that of Oscar Wilde's mother Speranza, who wrote bad drawing-room verse and equally bad political pamphlets from the comfort of a Merrion Square drawing room. Constance was very much the grande dame patronising the poor and under-privileged as she flitted through Dublin, although she did found and lead Na Fianna, a boy-scout type organisation with a deadly purpose: to indoctrinate and train the youngsters to become armed revolutionaries.

James Connolly appointed her to drive Kathleen Lynn around Dublin during the Rising, but such a menial task didn't suit Constance, and she abandoned Lynn (who was senior to her) outside Dublin Castle, and took herself off to Stephen's Green, where she assumed the rank of Lieutenant under Michael Mallin who was commanding the garrison.

Matthews also explodes the myth of the Countess distributing largesse to the Dublin poor: she lived on an inadequately tiny annuity inherited when her father died, but her straitened circumstances never caused her to waver in her contemptuous and authoritarian treatment of anyone she thought beneath her in status. But she did have, as Sean O'Casey was to point out, plenty of physical courage.

Barbara Dempsey plays the Countess and Neill Fleming the QC, and they both do well under Anthony Fox's clearly determined direction. Unfortunately the same cannot be said for the rest of the cast, who carry little conviction and seem somewhat loose of accents, with Helena Molony, a child of the slums, sounding identical to the middle-class and educated Kathleen Lynn.

Madame de Markievicz on Trial will tour countrywide until April 18, and will also play a single performance at the Irish Cultural Centre in Paris.

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