Exploding the story to meld many worlds into one tale

 

CONSIDERING how much popular interest there is in Irish history, it is remarkable there are so few history plays in our theatre. In most European countries, and especially in England, there is a substantial body of drama in which the past is recapitulated, recovered and redefined.

Here - perhaps because history still has a present tense - there isn't. What we have are. not history plays but plays about history: how it is made and why. In its title and content, Brian Friel's Making History, a play not about Hugh O'Neill but about the construction of a historical narrative around him, is emblematic.

Recently, two brilliant plays have gone. even further, and reversed the usual relationship between theatre and history. Instead of taking a historical event and then dramatising it, they have taken a theatrical event and given it a historical reference. In Tom MacIntyre's Good Evening, Mr Collins and in Sebastian Barry's The Steward Of Christendom, the border between the past and the present has ceased to exist. The chronological logic of history has been replaced by the radical openness of theatre in which all that matters is, as Tom Murphy puts it in The Gigli Concert, that "you and I are alive in time at the same time".

Donal O'Kelly's magnificent Calpa, originally produced by Red Kettle in 1995 and now at the Gate in Dublin, belongs in the same company. It makes use of a historical event, the extraordinary jail break of the 1870s in which an American whaling boat snatched six Irish Fenian prisoners from Western Australia and brought them all the way to New York, but it is not about that event. The story is refracted through a double prism of cinema and theatre, so the white light of historical. truth is broken up into a fabulous rainbow whose colours are fact and imagination, triumph and failure, sex and politics, the public and the personal.

From the very start of the play, we are unsure what century we are in. Giles Cadle's set - a big, bare and decrepit Georgian room - suggests a 19th century slum. But when Donal O'Kelly enters, he is wearing 1990s cycling gear. Nothing in the room suggests our world, yet he is clearly of it, for as he begins to speak, his talk is of Hollywood moguls and Tom Cruise. He has failed to sell his epic movie script on the voyage of the Catalpa, so he is going to tell us the picture.

The feel is a bit like Kiss Of The Spider Woman played by one actor. There is the same mixture of movie fantasy and political intrigue, but instead of being alternative worlds, they have melted into each other. And this isn't just an aspect of the writing: it is embodied in. O Kelly's extraordinary performance.

It is not just that he plays the entire cast and, literally, crew - though he is possessed by more spirits than Jodie Foster in The Exorcist: he is, among other things, a seagull, a little rich girl, a bored clerk pining for the sea, a dying old woman, a cynical whaling agent, an Oirish port commissioner, the Fenian John Devoy, a bluff Dublin conspirator, a Scottish first mate, a drowning Indian, a whale, a pregnant French maid, a British colonial governor and an awkward Australian.

What is really remarkable, though, is not this feat of multiple impersonation, but the deeper idea that allows it to happen. For what Donal O'Kelly manages to do is to abolish the distinction between showing and telling. The device of telling a movie allows him to be both, actor and narrator, so that we forget to ask whether he is recounting a story or playing it out. And this ability is at the heart of the play's reflection on history. History tells a story; theatre enacts it before us. By doing both at the same time, he makes the difference between one form and the other, and thus between the past and the present, shrink to nothing.

The result is a brilliant unravelling of the heroic epic and a subtle questioning of all kinds of official history. The story of the Catalpa doesn't fit into Hollywood's view of the world. But the stories of many of those who sailed on the Catalpa don't fit into a comfortable nationalist history either. The big story, the daring rescue, ends in a ticker tape parade down Fifth Avenue. It is public history. But the other, private histories that are interwoven with it have no such triumphant ending. The captain, George Anthony, doesn't get the money that was his main reason for undertaking the voyage. The Pawnee Indian in the crew ends up on the bottom of the sea. The West Indian ends up selling relics of the Catalpa cut into shamrock shapes. The pregnant French maid is, like Ariadne, abandoned and betrayed.

And that reminder of the story of Theseus's voyage to slay the Minotaur is appropriate to the feel of the play. Catalpa is, above all, a homage not to the facts that make up history but to the imagination. And when the imagination is brought to bear on great events, the result is myth.

Donal O'Kelly has made a narrative that has the rough, magical qualities of the Greek mythic tales: directness, vigour, spellbinding narrative, cruel humour and a sense of the human failures that so often underlie heroic deeds. And though it runs only until Saturday night, Catalpa deserves to linger in the imagination for a long time.