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This story of a suspected IRA member is as relevant today as it was in 1923

The Sean O’Casey play is currently on show at the Abbey Theatre. We speak to its director, Wayne Jordan.

What danger can there be, in being the shadow of a gunman?’ – Donal Davoren

IN A GRIMY tenement on a Dublin street live two men. One sells useless bits and bobs to make ends meet; the other pens lousy poetry.

Together they make an odd pair: Donal Davoren (played by Mark O’Halloran in this latest Abbey Theatre/Lyric Theatre production) the serious writer perturbed by how often his pursuits are interrupted by rowdy neighbours; and Seumus Shields (David Ganly), a poor worker who’s disillusioned with his beloved nationalism.

The year is 1920, and Ireland is in the throes of the War of Independence. Revolution hangs like smoke in the air, and obscures the truth of what’s really happening.

In the confusion, the hopefulness and the desire for change, Davoren is soon mistaken as a member of the IRA.

His silent refusal to correct this error of identity is at the heart of Shadow of a Gunman, a play written by Dubliner Sean O’Casey in 1923 but which is still quite prescient today.

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The war was barely put to bed when O’Casey penned the work, which became the first in a Dublin Trilogy, the others being Juno and the Paycock (1924) and The Plough and the Stars (1926).

Director of this new production at the Abbey Theatre, Wayne Jordan, is a forceful figure in the Irish theatre scene. He’s a very busy man, having recently finished a run of Romeo & Juliet in the Gate Theatre.

He is many things – bold, funny, playful, knowledgeable – but Jordan is not a “heritage director”.

Dan Gordon and Louise Lewis in The Shadow of a Gunman by Sean O'Casey, a... Dan Gordon and Louise Lewis

“I don’t do it to celebrate the past, I do it to interrogate who we are now,” he tells TheJournal.ie as the empty Abbey theatre soaks up his words.

He’s not concerned with being “the guardian of something”, and assumes a sense authorship alongside the writers of the works he directs, be they Shakespeare or O’Casey.

“I think that’s my responsibility when I am asked to do things,” he says.

With this latest work, he shakes off the tropes that not-so-subtly indicate that the audience is watching an ‘Irish play’. The characters’ costumes indicate they could occupy times that span from 1920 to today, from Minnie Powell’s midcentury bright dress to the dapper Donal Davoren’s neckscarf that places him in an earlier era.

You don’t turn up and go ‘this is a Georgian room, she has a shawl on, he’ll get shot’. Instead, you’re like ‘how are these people going to behave?’ You don’t think of them as a fait accompli. Instead, future history is pressing on them, and what are they going to do?

Funny and searing

Amy McAllister & Mark O'Halloran in The Shadow of a Gunman by Sean O'Cas... Amy McAllister (Minnie Powell) and Mark O'Halloran (Donal Davoren)

Shadow of a Gunman perches on a “tightrope between being raucously funny and searingly critical of Irish nationalism”, says Jordan.

It was radical. [O'Casey] wrote a tragedy about the War of Independence only a couple of years after it happened that was raucously funny.
The idea of picking that up and laughing at it; showing it and the way people behave and the fact that the popular movement of nationalism when it arrived had been reduced to sentimental romanticism that was a kind of umbrella of the hopes and dreams of many people.

O’Casey uses his “real rapier-sharp wit”, as well as the tropes of melodrama and vaudeville to show us that – just as throughout the Dublin Trilogy - ”there are no more heroes, there never were heroes”, as Jordan puts it.

Are you a coward?

Wayne Jordan picture Wayne Jordan

Jordan sees it as his responsibility as a theatre-maker – and also for his peers – “to really investigate the work for our people”

“A lot of my work is very playful and there is a tendency in Ireland not to see that as political or intelligent,” he says, emphasising how “dark, teacherly things” are what we tend to take more seriously as a nation.

Leaving the play, the audience is left with this question: How much of a coward am I? They have witnessed the fatal impact of cowardice, but also its unremarkable, familiar beginnings.

Malcolm Adams and Catherine Walsh in The Shadow of a Gunman by Sean O'Ca... Malcolm Adams and Catherine Walsh

Jordan often thinks about the nature of cowardice. “I always think about what I would do if the Nazis came,” he says. “The answer is you can never know what you would do – you have no idea. But I just always presume I would be a coward. I would hope that I wouldn’t be.”

I guess I’ll always just assume I’m going to be a coward and the reason I am drawn to work like this or make it, or read things like this, is because I think it’s important to be around that issue because if we are ever – and God hope we never are – in a situation like that, we won’t be cowards because we will remember.
I think it’s just safer to assume you’ll be a coward and work from there, and then be like OK, be aware.
If you think for a moment you won’t be [a coward], then you are immediately open to manipulation, ignorance, being overly certain. You’re in trouble. We’re all in trouble if people just presume it.

He draws a comparison here to the recent same-sex marriage referendum. Growing up, as a gay teen he “couldn’t have imagined” getting married.

Being a gay man in Ireland enables him to step into the shoes of others who have been marginalised and denied equal rights.

Now I think, how sad that that wasn’t even epistemologically available to me. That people could be so against it. There was a time when people thought women couldn’t vote, there was a time before that when people thought that black people could be slaves. And you think, what are the things we are not seeing now that must be happening all the time, and in 100 years people are going to be like ‘what were they thinking?’.

Jordan, who believes that “it’s very important to use ideas as tools for change”, sees how the story in Shadow of a Gunman is just as relevant today as it was back in 1923.

What the theatre can do is remind us to open our eyes. I think the danger with a play like this is that people become self satisfied about the fact it was in the past, that we came out the other side.

The past is not so much a foreign country as a place we’ve lost sight of in the rearview mirror. As we zoom away from it, it’s still in situ, but our view of it is misty.

Shadow of a Gunman runs until 1 August at the Abbey Theatre in Dublin.

Read: “She could set the world alight – but she’s not allowed, so she sets fire to people’s hair”>

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