National Concert Hall, Kevin Barry Recital Room
“They’re Celts. They’ve been at it for 700 years and they’ll be at it for the next 700 years,” says someone in Downing Street, on the eve of negotiations to conclude a war. Ireland, to these frustrated politicians, is a troublesome member of the empire, responsible for the recent War of Independence and a disharmonious centuries-old kingdom in Great Britain. There will be argument over where the blame lies but, astonishingly, what both sides of the negotiations in Fishamble’s riveting play The Treaty agree on is a long, continuous history of violence.
A sombre beginning at a cemetery brings two figures pushed to the margins of history together as friends: Kathleen McKenna (Kate Stanley Brennan), a secretary who accompanied the Irish negotiators to London, and Tom Jones (Simon O’Gorman), an assistant to David Lloyd George. Both wrote memoirs that give Colin Murphy’s script extraordinary access, and they now act as narrators, helping whip months of talks into a taut narrative.
Director Conall Morrison’s survey of the rival camps makes for a masterclass in tension. “Ireland is the key to politics,” says a grave Lloyd George (Jonathan White), alarmed that any decolonisation could set an example for other countries. The Irish delegation, including Arthur Griffith (Karen Ardiff) and Michael Collins (Patrick Moy), arrive in London with no less than their country’s independence on the line – though they’ve been instructed to stall until they receive instructions from president Éamon de Valera (Jane Brennan).
It is the contemplations of violence that cut deepest
History plays opened doors to gender-blind casting, and it pays handsomely here. Brennan, bolt upright in appearance, gives a mesmerising emulation of de Valera’s paced, crystal voice. Griffith’s sharp retorts could slice through glass in Ardiff’s exceptional timing. Much of the pleasure is in seeing the cast lend their clear-cut intonation and stately gestures to gripping moments of debate. Such decorum, of course, is anathema to Michael Collins, who, in Moy’s considered performance, is a brusque military general turned reluctant politician.
Murphy’s script paints intriguing details of subterfuge, down to assigned seats at the negotiation table, and using the residence of Lady Lavery (a practically levitating Caitríona Ní Mhurchú) as a neutral meeting ground. The greatest innovations are the contemporary parallels when the Irish delegates outline de Valera’s vague proposal of “external association”, where one country would exit an international community while maintaining a presence in its trade agreements. Sound familiar?
It is the contemplations of violence, however, that cut deepest. Winston Churchill’s legendary peevish expression is gold for a comic actor like Camille Lucy Ross, but as the MP and Collins spar over the difference of dying honourably in the battlefield and being assassinated in guerrilla warfare, before reflecting on their own personal tragedy, it becomes soberingly clear that all death is loss.
That makes peace seem a more urgent goal. The play is sympathetic to the Irish delegation, for whom the simplest compromise can amount to treason, and whose colleagues argue the Anglo-Irish treaty is a step backward. What seems important is that it was a step.
Continues until November 27th at the National Concert Hall. Available on demand December 6th-12th. nch.ie