The 1916 Rising was the ultimate street spectacle: a revolution drenched with theatrical symbolism that was ultimately more potent than actual ability to wage war on the British. It was no coincidence that many of the Irish Volunteers were involved in the theatre. They brought those skills of organisation, collaboration and artistic awareness to bear upon their involvement in the rebellion.
The failed coup has provided a rich source of inspiration for Irish theatre over the past 100 years. As early as 1922, Maurice Dalton was exploring the fractures brought to bear on family life by the Rising in Sable and Gold. Sean O'Casey's The Plough and the Stars celebrated the 10th anniversary with a critique of the failed revolution that focused on the lives of ordinary citizens caught up in the fray.
The Dreaming of the Bones, WB Yeats's dance play, placed a Fenian fugitive in conversation with figures from Irish mythology, with similarly critical results. In 1965 Tom Murphy took a documentary approach in his BBC TV play, The Patriot Game, though the drama was never aired.
More recently, Donal O'Kelly's surrender drama Operation Easter, which was performed in Kilmainham Gaol in 2006, provided a reflection of the failures of the Proclamation. In the same year Arthur Riordan and Des Bishop satirised revolutionary idealism through the haze of opium addiction in Shooting Gallery. In History (2013), Grace Dyas looked at the way in which the Rising ushered in a century of hardship for citizens of inner-city Dublin.
There are dozens of other theatre artists who have used the Rising as starting point for examining the social and political difficulties of their time.
This year’s centenary provides a particular opportunity for artists to examine the way in which the Rising has shaped the last 100 years of Irish social history. Showcasing a variety of approaches, from the documentary to the immersive, they bring the past into the present.
For director Louise Lowe, the premiere of her latest work for Anu Productions is the culmination of four years of research.
She worked with Catriona Crowe at the National Archives. Lowe was interested in making a piece of work for the 1916 commemoration that would "embrace other moments of rebellion or revolution in Ireland over the last 100 years, to explore the impact [of the Easter Rising] on ourselves and our society."
The first of these pieces, Sunder, is one of three productions that will span the centenary year, but it the only one that "is literally set in 1916", Lowe says. That is not to say that it will be a traditional costume drama.
Sunder, which will be performed on the network of streets between the GPO and Moore Street, looks at "the contested fraught final hours that led up to the surrender." Instead of taking the well-known leaders as a focal point, Anu will "reconstruct what might have happened to the unknown rebels and the impact on the citizens of Moore Street: the civilian casualties who died fleeing houses that went on fire [when the] GPO exploded; 16-year-old Moggie Murtagh, who crossed Henry Street in a blaze of bullets with a crucifix over his shoulder".
“It was because of the civilian casualties that the rebels decided they should surrender,” says Lowe.
The long lead-in time for the project allowed for uncovering these lesser-known stories of the Rising and consideration about how to present them to an audience in Anu’s typically immersive style.
The Anu crew have been in negotiations for four years about where the production might take place. From the beginning they knew Moore Street itself would be central to any theatrical exploration, but they were as interested in providing a window into the contemporary multicultural reality of Moore Street as they were in commemorating its history.
Until a few weeks ago they had planned on performing in No 16, the last headquarters of the rebel leaders before they surrendered. The fact “that it is such a contested site” meant Lowe and her team were always aware of potential obstacles, so she is fairly sanguine about the fact that the building is not available to them.
With three weeks to go to opening, Anu is now looking to house part of the performance on a different building on the street, “a domestic site above a shop. The fact that you will have to go through a present-day scenario before going back to the past”, the director says, will be an essential part of the production’s dialogue with the present.
However, most of Sunder will be set on the street, exploring "the geography of the surrender". Performing in a public space presents many challenges to the production and to performers.
Anu is well-used to dealing with such variables and liaises with gardaí to help minimise disruption to the show or danger to the performers. It sends headshots to the local Garda station with a description of what actors will be doing and wearing in particular scenes. The actors are armed with safety alarms and code words in case of unruly public interaction. The company also spends time getting to know “the rhythm of streets, and trying to work with it rather than impose ourselves. We try to get to know the community and they become an important part of the work.”
When you are working in a real-life setting, Lowe says, "what is there is really rich in texture already, and we don't want to intrude on that when we are making the show". Just as there is no way of predicting the day-to-day life of the street, so Lowe is still not quite sure what will unfold when Sunder takes to the streets. Nerve-racking stuff. Sunder runs April 14th-May 1st, anuproductions.ie
Inside the GPO
It is a busy weekday lunchtime on O’Connell Street. In the GPO, school groups doing projects loiter underneath the balcony, while office workers queue at booths to buy stamps.
Jim Culleton is standing back, observing the frantic movement of bodies and trying to imagine that they are not there. In less than three weeks, his production of Colin Murphy's documentary play Inside the GPO will premiere in this very space, which is defined by its history as the headquarters of the Irish Volunteers during Easter Week 1916.
Inside the GPO dramatises the evolving debate among the Volunteer leadership over the five days of the rebellion.
“When we look at the events of Easter Week today,” Culleton says, “it is with hindsight of 100 years, but it is really just a version of events. If you go back to the historical material, you discover that there was a lot of disagreement about [events] as they were happening – that things were changing all the time.”
Colin Murphy says knowing the play would be produced in the GPO was a factor in how it evolved.
“The play is written very specifically for the GPO,” he says. “I initially thought we’d be more literal, creating distinct stage areas to replicate key areas of the 1916 GPO. At one point I was about to start mapping it out on the table, with Sylvanians as my cast, to try and work out who was going where all the time. But production constraints meant we quickly moved on from that idea. Instead [the play] is structured so as to embrace the environment without requiring us to ‘pretend’ that it is the GPO as it was in 1916.
“We are using the depth and breadth of the space, but because we are staging it in the round, we are also creating a conventional stage area in the centre, which is whatever we say it is.”
For Culleton, embracing the limitations of the public building actually allows a different level to unfold. It means “the play is not just about remembering 1916 or about getting up close to leaders as they grapple with issues and circumstance, although it will do that too. But it means for the audience it is just as much about being in 2016, questioning the principles of the Proclamation as it is read out by Pearse.”
Seated in the round, “looking at other members of contemporary audience around them, the audience are always aware that they are at a play in 1916”. The fact that they might also “hear a busker singing or a soup kitchen passing will play a part in allowing us to think about the birth of our nation and how, 100 years later, we have failed to live up to some of its principles.”
Culleton has directed other site-specific work. In 2006, Fishamble commissioned 12 short plays, which were performed throughout Temple Bar, from the streets to secluded shop dressing rooms. But Culleton admits that the GPO project is of a different scale.
“The post office is open until 6pm every day,” he says. “We have only 45 minutes to get in all the props and furniture and lights. We have a van in Arnotts parked in Outward Goods ready to roll in as soon as it closes. Then we have two performances every evening, with a 40-minute turnaround.”
Nearly 40 crew members are involved and the entire performance has to be cleared after the final curtain call so that the GPO is ready to open the next morning.
“I come in every time I pass,” Culleton says. He uses the journey to and from rehearsals to get to know the GPO as well as he can.
"Just as I was walking in this afternoon, I was checking how heavy the doors are to open, pacing out how far we are from stage to door. We don't have the normal theatrical tools at our disposal, but I hope that is made up for by the authenticity of space, what happened here 100 years ago." Inside the GPO runs March 29th-April 4th, fishamble.com
OTHER 1916 SHOWS
Maloney’s Dream/Brionglóid Maloney
This bilingual production for children by Branar Téatar do Pháistí uses puppetry, live music and comedy to explore the impact the Rising had on ordinary people. It tours nationwide, April 6th-May 19th. branar.ie
Deirdre Kinahan examines the evolution of revolutionary idealism through two young characters from Co Meath. Wild Sky concludes its regional tour at St Enda's Park, Rathfarnham (March 21st- 23rd), the site of Patrick Pearse's school.
The Plough and the Stars
The definitive 1916 play, by Sean O'Casey, is performed a stone's throw from the GPO at the Abbey Theatre. Until April 23rd
The Patriot Game
Tom Murphy’s play, which brings together a group of actors to produce a play about the Easter Rising, will be staged at the Lyric Theatre, Belfast, April 26th-30th.
The Woman is Present: Women’s Stories of 1916 Republic
Written by Pom Boyd, Peter Sheridan and Mary Moynihan. The play remembers the experiences of women as revolutionaries, advocates for social justice and peace. Produced by Smashing Times Theatre. Smock Alley, April 21st.