BWW Review: SIGNATORIES, Kilmainham Gaol, Apr 2016
Retrieving the 1916 Rising hasn't been easy. An insurrection, framed for decades by a Catholic Republic as a blood sacrifice at Easter, has been more recently revealed as a hopeful military coup motivated by fights for egalitarian freedoms. If the rebel leaders (identified as the signatories of the Irish Proclamation) were harbingers of change, they mightn't have know it; accounts report that they were spat upon and jeered by locals on the street before facing their final hours in Kilmainham Gaol.
The historic site has become the staging ground for a new series of monologues about the signatories, produced by Verdant Productions and University College Dublin. Inside the vast and formidable prison hall, you'd suspect director Patrick Mason's promenade can do no wrong. You'd even forgive the bundle of blood-stained proclamations thrown overhead from on high, more an act of pageantry than theatre.
It's clever to fight fire with fire: to get inside the heads of the scholars and poets who made up the rebel leaders, assemble some of the leading writers of today. Room author Emma O'Donoghue's monologue about Elizabeth O'Farrell, the courageous nurse who hoisted the white flag, is the most crystal of the collection. Actor Barbara Brennan descends and climbs iron staircases as O'Farrell jumps barriers to spread the message of surrender to the rebels' barricades. The piece, including O'Farrell's complicated relationship with history (she was literally airbrushed from the surrender photograph), might have fared better without Brennan's broad strokes.
Most fascinating is Thomas Kilroy's portrayal of Padraig Pearse, soberly played by Peter Gaynor. Kilroy dashes usual suspicions of Pearse's homosexuality to address male figures in his life: an extreme father, a vulnerable boy caught in the maelstrom of the GPO. More radical is the transformation of the romantic poet who delivered the Proclamation into another type of messenger. Frighteningly, Gaynor's cataclysmic Pearse becomes the angel of death.
Other treatments are not as daring. Hugo Hamilton curiously foregoes the opportunity to give voice to the exceptional James Connolly, and instead presents a vague 1960s episode of Republican violence told by an unknown woman (Lisa Dwyer Hogg). Rachel Fehily nicely ushers in the family life of Tom Clarke (Joe Taylor).
Éilís Ní Dhuibhne looks at Seán MacDiarmada through the lens of his girlfriend Min Ryan, a flapper in Roseanna Purcell's charismatic performance. However, Ryan's own achievement as a participant in the Rising feels downplayed. Frank McGuinness makes a torturous ritual of a death-facing Éamonn Ceantt (dutiful Ronan Leahy) laying out his personal affects. "Do I hear the man I shot? With what voice does he use? Is it my own?". You'd appreciate more answers than questions.
It is Marina Carr who most dauntlessly marches her subject from the stinking corridors of jail to the firing line. Thomas MacDonagh, sweetly played by Stephen Jones, contemplates how life may have turned out differently. Jones excellently measures the humour and disappointment of Carr's muscular and pastoral monologue. It makes for the greatest goodbye, against the landscape of MacDonagh's Munster home.
Finally, Joseph O'Connor's beguiling portrait of the intellectual Joseph Mary Plunkett is delivered with killer wit by Shane O'Reilly. O'Connor finds gentle heartbreak in Plunkett's unorthodox marriage, performed in his cell seven hours before his execution. He also provides a means of wrapping things up, as the figure of Plunkett points to his peers in the upper tiers: "We all loved the theatre. That's what it was: a piece of theatre!".
That would tempt us to think that the Rising's success in shifting public desire for Independence wasn't accidental. At the hands of these poets, it might have been engineered.
Signatories is on tour until May 5th. Photo: Ros Kavanagh.