Writers: Emma Donohue, Thomas Kilroy, Hugo Hamilton, Frank McGuinness, Rachel Fehily, Éilís Ní Dhuibhne, Marina Carr, and Joseph O’ Connor.
Director: Patrick Mason
Reviewer: Ciara L Murphy
Marking the weekend of the (actual) 1916 Rising is Signatories which begins its life in the vast historic space that is Kilmainham Gaol. Produced by Verdant Productions, eight prominent Irish writers were approached to create a performance based on the seven signatories of the Irish Proclamation. Elizabeth O’ Farrell is also thrown in for good measure.
Another 1916 play in a year already cluttered with artistic commemorations on this topic needs to be affective, challenging, and brave to justify its own existence. The space is a good start, but as one hundred bloodstained copies of the Irish proclamation flutter to the ground it becomes clear that this production is going to sit lamely on the fence.
Emma Donoghue’s representation of Elizabeth O’ Farrell (Barbara Brennan) starts proceedings off with an uncomfortable bang, at least for this reviewer. Farrell, who among many other female participants in the 1916 Rising, has had her involvement swept under the carpet of history. She asks the audience “what did I do to deserve to be remembered?” Donoghue is clearly attempting to carve out Farrell’s space in history in this piece, forcing her centre stage, and asking the audience to remember her. The problem is that Donoghue doesn’t go far enough. The problem is that it is not problematic enough.
This becomes an uncomfortable theme that spans most of this production. Thomas Kilroy’s Patrick Pearse (Peter Gaynor), Frank McGuinness’s Éamonn Ceannt (Ronan Leahy), and Rachel Fehily’s Thomas Clarke (Joe Taylor) challenge nothing. There seems to be a sense of unfinished business here, a conversation from beyond the grave telling us that the blood sacrifice was worth it, that Ireland’s freedom was worth it. One hundred years later as we are standing in Kilmainham Gaol, a recognition of the challenges and problems that have peppered the existence of this troubled nation could have given the audience pause. The fact is that these portrayals would have been out of date on the Irish stage fifty years ago.
Equally difficult to swallow are the stories of James Connolly by Hugo Hamilton and Seán Mac Diarmada by Éilís Ní Dhuibhne. Choosing not to represent the men themselves, but rather via a third party, had potential. In particular Hamilton’s choice to move the narrative into the contemporary sphere was at first encouraging. A Young Woman (Lisa Dwyer Hogg) recalls her sister’s love for James Connolly. The backdrop is Birmingham in the 1960s or 70s (it isn’t quite clear). The issue of class is picked up and tossed away, mentioned as a token seeing as he is referring to Connolly. Instead the audience hear the tale of a failed kidnapping, the link is frankly bizarre. Then there is Ní Dhuibhne’s representation of Min Ryan (Roseanna Purcell) who is playing us for laughs. There is no bite here, no challenge, and the result is disappointing.
However, there is a redemption that comes at the end of this production. Marina Carr’s representation of Thomas MacDonagh (Stephen Jones) transcends the sins of the previous six monologues and unapologetically challenges, problematises, and humanises a harrowing and personal human experience. Jones is subtle, drawing the audience in, creating a sense that we are interacting with a real, complex person, not the caricatures we’ve been previously lumbered with. Carr makes the political irrelevant focusing instead on the humanity of the man. Joseph O’ Connor’s representation of Joseph Mary Plunkett (Shane O’ Reilly) also reaches for the personal. There is a sense in the final two scenes that the performance is finally coming together, it should have all been like this.
Undoubtedly a hard form to pull together, monologue is a rigid and ultimately self-reflexive form. The space should have been the key in what has been referred to as a ‘site-specific’ production, but we could have been anywhere. Even the cavernous visage of the East Wing could not imbibe this production with the creative bravery that it so obviously lacked. This production will comfortably move from the site of the Gaol to the proscenium stage, it might even be better housed there. Overall this production is safe. This reviewer feels that an opportunity to challenge, to question, and to problematise was missed in Signatories, and this was ultimately its downfall.
Runs in Kilmainham Gaol until April 23rd 2016 and on tour across Dublin until May 5th 2016 | Image: courtesy of Verdant Productions.