Monday 21 October 2019

Wilfred Owen saves a new face in hell

The Rose of Jericho, Theatre Upstairs, Lanigan’s, Eden Quay, Dublin

Kevin Hely delivers a stomping performance in 'The Rose of Jericho' Photo: Theatre Ortas
Kevin Hely delivers a stomping performance in 'The Rose of Jericho' Photo: Theatre Ortas

Emer O'Kelly

An anti-war play has quite a lot going for it.

The word "c**t" is used seven times in the first 90 seconds of The Rose of Jericho, causing this critical heart to drop with what must have been an audible thud into its owner's boots.

Another of them, I was thinking. What I meant was that I was expecting a mindless litany of violent verbal scatology - devoid of drama, purpose, or any discernible talent. And I'm becoming seriously fed up with such "works of art".

However, the protagonist in this has a point and a purpose. He's an ex-British Army squaddie who has seen action in the Balkans and in Iraq, with obvious and inevitable post-traumatic effects. But his problems go back further: to his violent, deprived childhood in Dublin with a browbeaten mother and a brutally violent father whom he idolised and hated in equal measure.

He's still a self-confessed "violent c**t" himself, given to punching holes in walls when he "loses it" - although he is saved from himself by the wife (whom he "only" hit once, splitting her skull, but who gave as good as she got).

In that context we then get a destructive, visceral description of the brutalities and horror of war, particularly in this case the brutalities he saw some of his fellow squaddies inflicting on the people of Basra. What he saw doesn't fit the narrative of heroic duty.

Most sensible people are well aware that terrified and desensitised men, trained to kill without mercy or thought, aren't going to bow three times and dance minuets in a war zone - but it still makes for an appalling, relentless saga.

So now the ex-soldier is determined to undermine the system as best he may, with any kind of disruption he can; and he is a marked man by the intelligence services. He carries a flick-knife, though according to himself it's not the answer. He believes in the efficacy of the camera: he hung out with the "journos" in Iraq, but found them committed to the accepted narrative. So post-war, he's a one-man seeker after the truth which will destroy the armchair generals.

That's it, really.

There have always been a lot of such men out there, and nobody has ever listened: the armchair generals like Tony Blair, instanced in this piece, continue to seek personal glory ("legacy"), and testosterone-fuelled young men continue to glory in their uniforms.

For Alex Martinez's anti-hero in The Rose of Jericho it is the haunting poetry of World War I poet Wilfred Owen that opens his eyes. Would that it were that easy.

Kevin Hely delivers a stomping performance in an admittedly somewhat overwritten piece; it's a Theatre Ortas production at Theatre Upstairs on Eden Quay in Dublin.


Having had cause to visit the national theatre's website just a week ago, I discovered links to its gender equality policy, its bullying and harassment policy, and its charity information policy.

I couldn't find the cast information for a current production, which was what I needed. But I went back later when I had the time, looking with some curiosity for a link to the artistic policy. But apparently, if the Abbey Theatre has an artistic policy, it's not interested in making it available.

There is what is called a "mission statement". It refers to the country's "rich canon of dramatic writing", and "inspired by the revolutionary ideals of the founders" the Abbey now makes "urgent theatre".

What the hell is "urgent theatre"?

It also offers "affordable tickets": I should think so. And "free first previews"... revolutionary? Under the 1950s aegis of the unlamented Ernest Blythe and the shadow of the equally unlamented Archbishop of Dublin John Charles McQuaid, when Catholic priests were forbidden to attend any theatre, there were free previews explicitly for priests. But the theatre had the grace to call them what they were - dress rehearsals.

What are no longer on offer are programmes: there is only a paper flyer, so there will be no printed production record for the future. And the flyer lists the company staff in alphabetical order, with no titles, an "equality" measure that probably ensures that voice coach Andrea Ainsworth gets a lot of calls intended for one of the artistic directors, or possibly for the front of house cleaner.

Another new measure is to permit drinks in the auditorium, a gross insult to the artists on stage as people slurp in front of them.

The mission is "to imaginatively engage" (a grammatical howler) "through ambitious, courageous and new theatre in all its forms"... and "promote inclusiveness, diversity, and equality."

I was going to see wide-eyed political stuff like that in sheds and basements when I was a student. But at 18 you can perhaps be forgiven for thinking you're creating a brave new world.

A national theatre is supposed to be grown-up and have an aspiration to soaring artistic excellence. It's also supposed to have an international perspective, and a responsibility to the national repertoire.

Yeats and Lady Gregory had some weird notions: but they never foresaw humourless, agitprop as being their theatre's mission.

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