A Great Arrangement review: love and war among the documents

Michael Collins’s relationship with Kitty Kiernan is brought to life by their letters

A GREAT ARRANGEMENT ★★★
Gaiety Theatre, Dublin

A giant Union Jack spans the back wall of the stage for A Great Arrangement, a play written and directed by Patrick Talbot. It’s a slightly startling vista, even now, and you just know that at some point it will drop to reveal a Tricolour. (It does.)

The subtitle is “Michael Collins, Kitty Kiernan and the forging of a nation”, and it is both the personal story of their relationship and the political story of the long Treaty negotiations and the follow-up. Smart use is made of documents, primarily letters between the couple, speeches, and reportage of the post-Treaty Dáil debate, all married smoothly into a narrative. The lines we know are all in there: Collins signs his own death warrant, Dev looks into his heart to gauge the nation. The sources lend credibility and accuracy to the production, though making dramatic interaction more difficult. (Plus, we all know what happens in the end.)

That it was an era of more frequent postal delivery moves things along rapidly, and Talbot nicely intercuts some exchanges between the two lovers, extracted from letters between London and Granard. Those exchanges sometimes skirt the big matters of state, and other times involve declarations of love, honesty and openness, assorted trivia and tantalising references to a love triangle ( Harry Boland was chasing her too), but it was clearly a difficult time for a burgeoning relationship.

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For a start, Collins and Kiernan appeared to hardly ever meet, and her letters are sometimes almost comically fixated on encouraging him to daily Mass (was she really that whiny and silly?). The glimpses he allows her of his fear and desolation are telling, and bring the history alive. But even with those sources, tone adds another layer, and there are times when a different tone to the same words might render a slightly different truth.

Dominic MacHale plays Collins, Irene Kelleher plays Kiernan, Mark D’Aughton, Paula McGlinchy and Michael Sands play a host of other characters, and the performances are strong and assured.

This is an intriguing representation of an intense personal and political period, slightly hampered theatrically by its faithfulness to original sources, and its static nature.

– Until September 17th, then at Backstage Theatre, Longford (September 20), and MAC, Belfast (September 22-24)