General Post Office, Dublin
“What are you here for?” an admonishing priest asks the rebels, while tending to the wounded and dying in the GPO. It’s a very good question, both then and now, and everybody returns a different answer. They have come to proclaim a Republic, to secure the vote for women, or to answer the call of everyone from Cathleen Ní Houlihan to the Worker. Colin Murphy’s diligent and vigorous new play for Fishamble wisely doesn’t narrow the options.
Why we are here one century later, director Jim Culleton’s site-specific production recognises, may come down to some contradictory impulses. It certainly offers the pageantry of recreation; historical figures made flesh, pursuing a familiar plot in the room where it happened. But we expect drama to cut deeper than ceremony. Behind the grandstanding and chaos, what was going through their heads?
Despite the restrictions of time (five tumultuous days telescoped into 75 brisk minutes) or a space that, for all its historical resonance, seems no more hospitable to revolutionary performance than it was the last time, Murphy’s play is anything but glib. As with his documentary plays and documentary work, he pursues a simple question towards complex answers: what makes people do what they do? Here, in a work of scrupulous research and hard-earned creation, everyone gets their say – even if it’s generally shouted over the rumble of shellfire.
For the sake of clarity, perhaps, we have a narrator: Karen Ardiff's Mary Louisa Norway, wife of the GPO secretary, who deplores the rebels from a balcony on high. Her inclusion might be more necessary if there weren't dissenting voices within. As Aidan Kelly's commanding James Connolly puts it: "Let's wait until we've won this before we turn our guns on each other." Connolly, a stentorian Scot, comes off as the most resolute of the rebels, but Murphy is otherwise wary of conviction.
It's not for nothing that a sceptic like The O'Rahilly gets the more resonant voice, played by Don Wycherley as a man gruffly supportive of what he sees as a military fiasco. Likewise, in Ronan Leahy's enjoyably florid performance, Patrick Pearse is appropriately ambivalent, rehearsing the Proclamation, kissing boys impulsively, quoting Cúchulainn ("Great, is he coming?" deadpans O'Rahilly, close to the statue), and – in a nice loping irony – being persuaded against surrender by his own blood-thirsty rhetoric, quoted by Michael Glenn Murphy's bitterly defiant Tom Clarke.
The GPO was always a more symbolic than strategic outpost. Thus, while each day is another claimed for the Republic, the play treats its occupants as unforced emblems of Ireland, past and future. While Manus Halligan's severe Sean MacDermott critiques colonialism, a captured British officer gives cricket lessons to enthusiastic volunteers; Orla Fitzgerald's redoubtable Winifred Carney (assisting both Connolly and the narration) and Liz FitzGibbon's Min Ryan (here, a voice of doubt), repeatedly assert women's role in the Rising. (Alas, Nurse Elizabeth O'Farrell has been written out of it once again.)
You might wish, occasionally, for a stab of contemporary humour, but Murphy and Culleton are earnest with the project. The most arch decision is to cast the audience; initially as British subjects, standing for the anthem, but by degrees we emerge as inheritors of a complicated Republic, one forged here and elsewhere in agreement and dissent, symbolism and strategy, rebellion and accommodation. Why are we in the GPO? It sends a message.
Runs until Apr 9