The Alternative review: Sly thought experiment which unpicks threads of history

Dublin Theatre Festival: In Fishamble’s new production, all of Ireland remains in the UK and now faces a referendum on whether to stay

THE ALTERNATIVE

Pavilion Theatre, Dún Laoghaire
★★★☆☆
If you've only ever known one reality, how hard is it to imagine the alternative? That's the sly satirical idea behind Michael Patrick and Oisín Kearney's new play for Fishamble, winner of the company's Play for Ireland competition, which unpicks the threads of history to imagine how modern Ireland would look if still part of the United Kingdom.

Following more than a century of apparently peaceful Home Rule, Irish culture has integrated so comfortably and pervasively with Britain, under the ubiquitous flutter of the Union Jack, that the current Prime Minister, Ursula Lysaght (Karen Ardiff), is an Irish woman. In the words of the national anthem, mischievously spelled out for us at the start of the show, “Dia lenár bhanríon”.

But who will save Ireland, on the eve of an in or out referendum on whether to stay in the UK or strike out for independence: Lysaught, the slickly manipulative Labour PM, urging Remain? Or her Irish nationalist coalition partner, and Leave architect, Peter Keogh (Arthur Riordan), proving cute hoorism is entirely compatible with the British parliamentary system?

In the BBC Dublin studio, Lorcan Cranitch's bluff producer, Richard, and Rory Nolan's wonderfully self-preening host, John, prepare to "inform, educate and entertain" a tensely divided electorate. Director Jim Culleton may find himself similarly occupied, providing a century of exposition in dialogue, unlikely props and tongue-in-cheek explainer videos.

But the seductive thought experiment of Patrick and Kearney’s premise accepts every embellishment, some intended to delight, others to provoke: what if the Rising had been a damp squib? The Civil War a non-starter? Every national hero and emblem subsumed within an obedient region? That, however, doesn’t leave much room for a play.

When Richard's daughter Grainne (Maeve Fitzgerald) arrives, a schizophrenic reeling from her mother's very recent death (which seems barely to have registered with Richard), the plot takes a turn for Philip K Dick territory, allowing Grainne glimpses of alternative realities, such as our own. That glib conceit is somehow harder to accept than the idea of Lord Bono or the celebrated regional receiving house of the Abbey Theatre.

In tandem with Rachel O’Byrne’s assistant producer, Hannah, a capable young woman whose competency is distrusted, it is finally made to parallel the ambitions and anxieties around independence too neatly, becoming another iteration of the same theme. It leaves you with the sense that, so occupied with its detailed conjecture, The Alternative doesn’t have much of a choice.

Runs as part of the Dublin Theatre Festival until Sunday, September 29th

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