Crossing the line

What might have been a drama about hearts and minds during the 1913 Dublin Lockout becomes a tragedy of inflexibility

Theatre Upstairs, Dublin

One of the risks any period drama faces, ironically, is in treating its protagonists as historical figures – characters so embalmed in piety, in other words, that they seem more distant from us still. The curious thing about Naomi Elster’s debut play, set during the 1913 Dublin Lockout, is that its characters are already so aware of their place in history that they rarely feel fully present.

“A hundred years from now, the people of Dublin will celebrate the centenary of this year that changed the course of Irish history,” predicts Nora Casey-Kelly (Áine de Siún), making a stentorian public address as a member of the Irish Women Workers Union. To an audience in 2013, that line sounds hopelessly artificial, but its purpose is to galvanise those who can barely imagine the next week, subsisting on impassioned rhetoric and thin soup. Elster’s drama, then, rests in tracing a widening chasm between far-reaching political ideals and more urgent private pressures.

Scabs, which is directed by Liam Halligan as a modest costume drama in sepia hues, centres on a young Dublin family in a freezing tenement building, and inevitably invites comparisons to Sean O'Casey's Dublin plays. Though she has a much narrower canvas, Elster follows suit with a gallery of characters, some with a comically loose grasp of politics and language. But while O'Casey is marked by his fierce moral scepticism, Elster's central characters, Nora and Audeon, are unswervingly earnest union leaders who seem unable to hold any conversation without stepping onto a high-minded soapbox. Even brief romantic recollections turn immediately to explanations of the strike's place in history. "What a day that was," rejoins Robert Harrington's Audeon. "It showed us all what we could be when we stuck together!"


What might have been a drama about the conflict between hearts and minds in impossible situations instead becomes a study in tragic inflexibility: when plutocrat William Martin Murphy (Seamus Whelan) preaches the strike-breaking inevitability of mass starvation, he might as well be a moustachioed villain, but when a beaten Audeon returns to work, Nora’s disdain seems similarly cruel and unreal. “It is easier to be willing to starve than it is to starve,” she says earlier, with more insight than the play’s crescendo allows. Until August 24

Peter Crawley

Peter Crawley

Peter Crawley, a contributor to The Irish Times, writes about theatre, television and other aspects of culture