Culture Shock: This people’s revolution is dulled by duty
The National Theatre is obliged to commemorate the 1913 Lockout, but Jimmy Fay’s production of ‘The Risen People’ should have asked a basic question first: why go back to James Plunkett’s text rather than approach the subject with wholly new eyes?
Photograph: Dara Mac Dónaill
Centenaries are awkward for the Abbey. From a civic and political point of view, the national theatre has a duty to respond this year to the 1913 Lockout. From an aesthetic point of view, there is nothing worse than dutiful theatre. On the one hand, it is hard for the Abbey to approach the Lockout with the freedom and boldness of Anu’s terrific, site-specific Thirteen project. On the other, it has to keep the dead hand of piety off its shoulder.
Jimmy Fay’s intelligent and energetic version of James Plunkett’s The Risen People is an honourable attempt to negotiate these contradictions. It is always watchable and sometimes impressive. It does avoid piety: Fay achieves a tone that is respectful of the struggles of the poor of Dublin but relentlessly unromantic about the contradictions and limitations of those struggles. He steers clear of agitprop triumphalism: while the nobility of the cause is not questioned, the human cost of pursuing it is not evaded. The culminating imagery is downbeat and bitterly ironic.
Its problem, however, lies with a question that does not seem to have been asked: why go back to Plunkett’s text rather than approach the subject with wholly new eyes? The Risen People is one of those pieces whose merit is largely retrospective.
It seems important because we know where it leads: to Plunkett’s superb novel Strumpet City. That book, reissued and widely reread this year, has stood the test of time and stands proud as the greatest Irish historical novel. It casts a backward light on The Risen People, an important stage in its creation. The core characters of the book – Fitz and Annie, the Hennessys, Rashers Tierney – were born in the play.
But born half-formed. Artistically, they are embryos, not grown men and women. The Risen People has none of Strumpet City’s depth, detail or sophistication. It has a scrappy history. It began in outline as a radio play, Big Jim. Plunkett developed it as a stage play for the Abbey in 1958, and reworked it, again for the Abbey, in 1962. Jim and Peter Sheridan then reshaped it in 1977 at the Project. Now Fay has again re-engineered the basic text, sometimes quite radically.
What we’re getting is thus an adaptation of an adaptation of an adaptation of a radio play – and all of this from a work that was itself very heavily indebted to Sean O’Casey’s The Plough and the Stars and Juno and the Paycock. Why bother? If Plunkett had not gone on to write Strumpet City, I doubt that anyone would think of reviving The Risen People.
Plunkett himself obviously knew this, for the best critique of The Risen People is Strumpet City itself. He did two things with the novel that transform the material of the play. One is to deepen the central characters, so that they shake off their origins as pale imitations of O’Casey. And the other was to make it genuinely epic by taking us into the lives and motivations, not just of the workers, but of priests and businessmen too. The sensation of going back to The Risen People from Strumpet City is thus like watching evolution in reverse.
It is greatly to the credit of Fay and his collaborators that they make something vibrant from this bad initial decision. The text is far too sketchy to be emotionally engaging, so Fay tries two different – and indeed contradictory – strategies to make it work. One is to give it some intensity by shrinking it still further.
The original Abbey production had 20 actors; this one has nine. (The most obvious excision is James Larkin himself, who featured heavily in both the original and the Sheridan versions.) The other strategy is to make it more epic, more obviously Brechtian in its theatrical language.
It is the second strategy that gives the production its energy and coherence. The idea that this is an Irish ballad opera is not especially original, but it creates a clarity of purpose that expresses itself in Alyson Cummins’s superbly agile set and Paul Keogan’s subtly expressionistic lighting.
Most of all, it allows the composer and musical director Conor Linehan to weave his own live score and consistently engaging, Weill-inflected songs (a mixture of traditional adaptations and original material) through the action.
It is not accidental that the performers, both collectively and individually (Kate Stanley Brennan, Hilda Fay, Phelim Drew and Charlotte McCurry especially) are most alive when they are singing. The same, alas, cannot be said when they are moving under Colin Dunne’s direction: too many of the ensemble movements retain the self-conscious air of celebs on Strictly. The contrast with the bold use of movement in Thirteen is somewhat painful.
Lockout: The Musical may sound like a crass idea, but Fay’s staging and Linehan’s music actually show that it might have been a very good idea. In the balance between duty and vibrancy, the risks should always be on the latter side. The Risen People is successful enough to suggest that the Abbey should continue to respond to the coming centenaries – and problematic enough to suggest that it should do so with more daring.