The Book of Names
Landmark/ANU on demand
It’s 1921, the eve of the Civil War in Ireland. And according to the way we wrote our history in the generations that followed, it might have been believed that, bloody though the period from 1916 to 1921 was, we were at least united as a country behind “the struggle”. That was far from the truth, as increasing maturity in examining the period is showing.
And if Louise Lowe’s production (for Landmark and her own company ANU) of her immersive promenade play, The Book of Names, which is set in that year of ultimate division, shows anything, it’s that violence breeds hatred and dissension. Furthermore, we’re battling with it to this day as our “decade of commemorations” tries to come to rational and fair-minded terms with a past that was brutal in anyone’s book.
The weakness of this site-specific-play, staged at The Pumphouse at Dublin Port, lies in an almost arrogant assumption that audiences will already be familiar with the events portrayed as well as the issues and people involved.
The characters who appear in the isolated soliloquies of memory aren’t named so, as a history lesson, the piece falls flat on its face. But it’s an effective dramatic picture nonetheless, of the lethal cocktail of religion and armed struggle and their combined fanatical self-justification.
It opens with a somewhat unnecessary modern-day prologue, with Etta Fusi as an official, identifying points of reference around the dockside, reminding the audience of the time when the place was a conduit for all of the arms and ammunition to be used in the War of Independence.
Then we are conducted to a canteen, the unofficial headquarters of Q company of the IRA (composed of dockworkers), where the canteen manager has charge of a book of names; it’s well hidden in a secret wall compartment, because he is the documenter of the IRA’s targets for assassination, most of them members of the Dublin Metropolitan Police.
The book contains their photographs, most taken by a young, widowed, professional portrait photographer (Úna Kavanagh) who arrives to provide further verbal descriptions of the subjects that are added to the dossier. The bookman (an intensely chilling Michael Glenn Murphy) demands accuracy: reluctant humanity shows through as he points out with cold passion that a single mistake in a description could result in the wrong target being taken out. But he doesn’t flinch.
The photographer, suddenly awake to reality, ponders on the men, young, not so young, personable (some fanciable) who have been caught by her lens. And how she will have a part in their deaths.
Others are victims rather than perpetrators: the young men under oath on the “other side”, their spines stiffened by being told, “You can’t be soldiers when you like the sounds of it, and not when it doesn’t suit.”
And if the 120 young men carrying their Lee-Enfield rifles for the attack on the Custom House are all lost, their self-appointed superior officers believe it will have been well worth it.
They are listed in the other Book of Names: the official ledger that contains the name of every employee of the Dublin Port Authority down the years.
And some of them from the fatal year of 1921 live through the turbulent times to tell their own tales: one torn between “the cause” and the death of his four-year-old child, with his wife blaming him for his neglect of them both; and the well-documented story of the volunteer dragged from his bed by the Auxiliaries and told during the seemingly endless night of beatings and terror that he’ll be begging for death by the time it’s over. Shot and thrown into the Liffey, he manages to swim to safety.
And finally, the cause becomes a choice: the treaty is signed, and the IRA splinters, comrades becoming enemies. Collectively, though, a question hangs in the air: was it worth it?
It’s so fiercely and spiritedly directed by the author that its theatrically fragmented core is almost overcome by its energy, with wonderful visual impact from flamboyant choreography, and several impassioned performances. Owen Boss’s design brings the elements of the setting together for a successful stream of impressionism, while Philip Stewart’s music lends spirit to the whole.
‘The Book of Names’ was part of the Dublin Theatre Festival and is now available on demand until November 13, via landmarkproductions.ie