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.