BWW Review: TO HAVE TO SHOOT IRISHMEN, Omnibus Theatre
When watching Peter Taylor's extraordinary television documentary series, Provos, I recall my father remarking that this was why Mrs Thatcher denied Sinn Fein the opportunity to speak on news reports - the Irishmen, hard men of the armalite and ballot box strategy (and some for whom even that represented a sellout), were eloquent and persuasive, poetic even. They were the inheritors of the tradition of Irish storytelling, vectors of a culture resilient after centuries under assault, men who knew the power of words.
Francis Sheehy Skeffington shared some of those men's dreams of a united Ireland, but he did not share their ruthlessness in its pursuit and his radicalism extended to women's suffrage and other causes in the tumult of World War One. In 1916, he was shot, a martyr of the 1916 Easter Rising, a victim of the way panic and (perhaps) Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder can lead to disastrous decisions - though less charitable interpretations will be offered by others for understandable reasons.
Lizzie Nunnery's play with music, To Have To Shoot Irishmen, is an account of what happened to Sheehy Skeffinngton. We join him in his cell as he talks to his jailer, a kid with a rifle and empty stomach, and we learn of his political dreams and his willingness to do his bit to put a brake on some of the yahoos shooting and looting in the streets.
Gerard Kearns speaks beautifully as Sheehy Skeffington, the accent complementing the language, with its metaphors, its passion, its decency. Robbie O'Neill's William is more a stock squaddie doing his duty, until he stands in court, sweating and scared, giving his account of why he did nothing to stop the extra-judicial firing squad that couldn't even kill their victim first time round. Both are fine performances.
Meanwhile, a parallel conversation is underway between Hannah Sheehy Skeffington, Francis's wife, and Sir Francis Vane, a Dubliner himself, in command of the British forces whose discipline was disintegrating in the face of the Easter Rising.
Elinor Lawless and Russell Richardson do what they can with their roles, but they are much less nuanced characters than the two interlocutors in the cell block, the woman inevitably angry and vengeful, the officer apologetic, but bound by duty to stick to authority's old excuse blaming "one bad apple".
Much credit for the atmosphere of dread in which the conversations take place goes to Vidar Norheim, whose music and songs (with Lizzie Nunnery) illustrate the context of the rebellion and motivations of those resisting British forces. The actors sing beautifully and play a range of instruments, both traditional and improvised.
It's all over in 70 minutes and one leaves feeling that there's a bigger play in here, perhaps more discussion between the Sheehy Skeffingtons or the chance to examine the psychology of the villain of the piece, the unhinged Captain John C. Bowen-Colthurst, but no.
What we get is a fine tribute to Sheehy Skeffington and, at a time when the Good Friday Agreement is under the most severe pressure from both Brexit and the wrangling in Stormont, a reminder that the peace on the island of Ireland is fragile, not to be taken for granted, and has roots that run very deep indeed.
Photo Mike Massaro