THE STORY OF the 1916 Rising is told in an intriguing way in a new play by an Irish director, who uses both nationalist and loyalist viewpoints to give a blended perspective on the event.
Written and directed by Joe O’Byrne, The Rising, and by way of interludes World War I is a two-man play that examines the tumultuous days of the 1916 Rising through the eyes of a pair of men from opposite sides of the divide.
They’re O’Brien, a Catholic, and McKeague, a Protestant, who tell the story of the Rising (and, by extension, World War 1), using an ‘agreed script’.
The actors – Nick O’Connell and John Ruddy – are in their mid twenties, as young as many of the men who fought in the Rising.
Using song, Irish dance and a plethora of props, they bring a vaudevillian feel and a touch of humour to the proceedings.
TheJournal.ie called into them during recent rehearsals, and here’s a little of what you can expect:
‘Not treated as a museum piece’
The play is the second in a trilogy, the first being about the Battle of the Boyne, and the as-yet-unwritten final part being about the Troubles.
“There’s a danger of something about 1916 being treated as a museum piece,” said director Joe O’Byrne, emphasising that the history is “very much alive” in many ways.
“The original idea for the show was there are two traditions on the island and different views of history,” he went on. If you want to tell the history of Ireland, you have to include these different viewpoints.
The ‘agreed script’ between the two men is a “mirror image” of the Good Friday agreement, and they stick to it 99 per cent of the time. When they break away they end up in conflict with each other. “They are doing this as an agreed friendliness but there is also the rivalry between the two of them.”
O’Byrne represents both characters’ backgrounds in different ways – the Irish dancing, for example, is a symbol of O’Brien’s Catholic and nationalist upbringing.
Hurleys are also used in this way:
Choreographing the show is Breandán de Gallaí, who was principal dancer with Riverdance and is an accomplished choreographer.
Within the cultural markers such as the Irish dancing is the space where conflicts can arise.
“The loyalist doesn’t like when the nationalist does his Irish dancing,” explained O’Byrne.
It’s used as a provocation. And his marching is always then as well a provocation on that side.
O’Byrne admits it was impossible for him to leave his own background out of it, though he tried to stay neutral.
“The show says the Rising is ‘the most important event in Irish history’, which is probably something I believe,” he laughed. “So if I was a Protestant from the North writing this, it might not. Whereas the earlier show writing about the Battle of the Boyne was a harder one for me to write.”
He hopes that at some level, a show like this would make some contribution to “culturally dealing with the legacy and the problems” of the Rising.
Is there a sense of resolution in the play? “There is inbuilt into the resolution the very fact the show presents them doing the show together,” he said of the two men.
It’s by friendly disagreement they do the show and so, the show in a way is an acceptance of the fact there are two traditions and they have to try and cooperate and that cooperation may not always be easy.
The use of props helps to tell a big story in a concise way. “There’s a whole sequence of scenes you can only present in a shorthand way, and so the use of props became a very useful device or technique where one or two props can stand for the whole scene.”
The first focus for O’Byrne was “to present a really strong, vigorous and entertaining theatre show”.
It’s not a history lesson, but there is the hope that people will learn something, “think about it, and may have an opinion about it afterwards, it may be positive or negative”.
Either way, it will certainly be thought-provoking.
The Rising will visit Town Hall Theatre, Galway: February 20; Theatre Royal, Waterford: February 26; An Grianan, Letterkenny: February 27; Powerscourt Theatre, Dublin: March 11 – 21 and Riverbank Arts Centre, Newbridge: March 22.