Theatre review: Pals – The Irish at Gallipoli
Things fall apart in Anu’s latest show, a profund look at Irish soldiers in the first World War – and that’s exactly what’s intended
Venue: Collins Barracks
Date Reviewed: February 12th, 2015
Pals: The Irish at Gallipoli
National Museum of Ireland, Collins Barracks, Dublin
“Do you think Ireland is proud of us?” a young soldier asks his friend, somewhere amid the carnage of Gallipoli, in a voice hollow and shocked. The question goes unanswered in Anu Productions’ latest, profoundly disarming evocation of our hidden histories. But it would take a particular naivety to say yes. That may be the most keenly understood tragedy of this supple performance, which vividly unearths lives that have been doubly disavowed, by national politics and by time.
Based on the testimony and letters of young Irish men who enlisted in the 7th Battalion of the Royal Dublin Fusiliers, Pals is not an exhibition, an excavation nor even recreation. It’s something rarer; an imaginative and sensitive summoning.
It begins, within the generous acoustics of the National Museum’s courtyard in Collins Barracks, with something like a guided tour, an explanation of the various motivations behind the so-called “Pals” brigades, rugby teams who enlisted for king and country, or home rule, or who were persuaded with shillings. Men who wanted to belong. That the tour is interrupted by ghosts, or memories incarnate, isn’t surprising. But when an abandoned woman calls her soldier husband a “coward”, the emphasis is unexpected.
It leads us into another barracks, Owen Boss’s impressionistic recreation of the cots of the first World War given a more unsettling aura by Sarah Jane Shiels’s evocative lights and against Carl Kennedy’s affecting soundscape. It’s always jarring when a promenade performance comes to rest, but here anecdotes, letters and horrors can pulse and breathe again.
We meet Ernest Hamilton (John Cronin), court-marshalled for drunkenness, who will later flirt with a nurse (the haunting Laura Murray) with the words, “I’m a hero: I was cut down by enemy fire.” In war, heroes are cut down. Cowards run away. Several hundred Irish “cowards” were executed by the British army, and their stories, misaligned with the new narrative of the Rising, went largely unmourned. When Shane Thomas Whisker, as Richard Patrick Tobin, narrates his letters home, you wonder, from our own distance, to which version of history we listen.
The iconography of war is disturbingly unchanging. A striking and frenetic dance sequence, in which a rugby ruck distorts into lobbed grenades and piled bodies, or a drift of letters for the dead, resembles similar scenes in Black Watch. But the capacity to transform and honour events, making an audience more than a witness, is director Louise Lowe’s singular talent.
You might find yourself counting off traumas, from shell-shock to suicide, wondering if the points have already been made. You might see the actor Thomas Reilly seek an audience member to help fasten his uniform before shipping out, and ask her, hopefully, “Do I look like a soldier?” You might fall apart. Until April 30th