Contemporary Irish Documentary Theatre
The editors sum up the reason for watching the documentary plays in this volume in two sentences.
“They give us history as lived experience rather than a dry accumulation of names, events and dates. But they are also crucial interpretations in Ireland’s present, staging the emotional wounds which, too often hidden and denied, repressed truth and bred hypocrisy”.
No Escape by Mary Raftery
This verbatim tribunal play, commissioned by the Abbey, is shocking and sickening. It addresses child abuse by the Catholic Church by encapsulating the 2,500-page Ryan Report, more formally entitled “The Commission to Inquire into Child Abuse”.
Mary Raftery skilfully uses the techniques developed by Richard Norton-Taylor and Nicolas Kent at London’s Tricycle Theatre to humanise and personalise the findings of a judicial enquiry.
In the last century, the Catholic Church in Ireland ran what were known as industrial schools for children who might have been victims of broken homes or found guilty of relatively minor misdemeanours.
Sadly, we have all become too familiar with the term “child abuse”, which as a result of the exposure should now be diminishing.
However, the offences perpetrated and facilitated for decades by those in holy orders—priests and nuns—might be better characterised by referring to them more directly as “torture” and “rape”. There are horrendous stories of children who were burned or beaten using not only canes and straps but in at least one case “a cat of nine tails”.
Both boys and girls were subjected to sexual abuse, often from a very young age, and threatened if they reported the fact.
Judge Sean Ryan and those involved in the investigation also uncovered systematic cover-ups by individuals in power in both the Catholic Church and, to demonstrate that the state was also partially responsible, the Department of Education.
Guaranteed! by Colin Murphy
The worrying thing about Guaranteed!, which has a larger fictional element than some of the other plays in this volume, is that we are about to go through the same disastrous experience again.
The play, originally produced by Fishamble, looks at the failure of the Celtic Tiger in 2008 as the banks in Ireland collapsed. As such, this is a thrilling tale of banks on the brink.
The consequences of overtrading by the Anglo-Irish Bank involved not only every major bank in the country and many overseas but also the Irish government.
While the latter was happy to ride the wave of success, when it came to a long dark night of the soul, the decision whether or not to prop up the financial system rested on a knife edge.
History by Grace Dyas
This fragmented piece follows the history of St Michael’s housing estate in Dublin from the days of hope in 1916 through to the current time.
It is close to agitprop, showing how the government repeatedly forced the poor to accept slum housing conditions, with a brief interregnum as they were moved out in a failed attempt to gentrify the area, which eventually foundered on greed and financial misconduct.
Of This Brave Time by Jimmy Murphy
Commissioned by the Abbey, Of This Brave Time by Jimmy Murphy presents a contemporary view of the 1916 Easter Rising. It has been created from archives created by the Bureau of Military History thirty years after the event and then stored for over half a century until the last participant had passed.
Patching together numerous verbatim soundbites, this is a thrilling blow-by-blow account from the inside of the efforts of the Irish freedom fighters to overcome much stronger and better-armed British soldiers.
Inevitably echoing The Shadow of a Gunman by Sean Casey, Of This Brave Time presents a comprehensive review of a remarkable week in which the GPO was taken amidst considerable confusion, then defended nobly, before eventual surrender and a series of strategic executions.
What nobody realised at the time was that this was the first blow in a war that would eventually prove successful for the cause of Irish independence.
My English Tongue, My Irish Heart by Martin Lynch
Although it draws heavily on the testimonies in Liam Harte’s The Literature of the Irish in Britain, which considers emigration from Ireland between 1725 and 2001, this is not a verbatim play.
In addition to testimonies, it utilises songs and fictional couple Gary and Susan, drawn from across the sectarian and political divides, to carry the story along.
Their trigger is the search for Susan’s long-lost great aunt, last heard of unborn but heading for Bolton 86 years before.
Even the wide scope of the source book isn’t enough for Martin Lynch who imagines Irish emigration as far back as the Dark Ages.
This is a cracking play about Irish identity amongst a community that has spread around the world in search of a better life running along at great pace and combining an entertaining tale of a couple finding themselves with snapshots from the long history of emigration.
The Two Deaths of Roger Casement by Domingos Nunez
Although its central figure, Sir Roger Casement, was an Anglo-Irish martyr, this play seems a little out of place.
Its playwright is Brazilian, while the nature of the work belies the description of “documentary”. Instead, it is a speculative piece that draws a portrait of the diplomat turned rebel who was executed in 1916.
Divided into two “Sides”, the first initially portrays Casement as a British diplomat in Brazil, fighting the forces of capitalism and their brutality in the name of profit.
Next, we witness him in prison awaiting execution for a failed gun-running expedition with the assistance of the Germans.
However, nothing prepares readers or viewers for the second half, based on a purported “black diary”, which detailed alleged sexual deviancy with underage boys.
Not only might this prove controversial, since it is suggested that the diary may have been forged, but the subject matter is explored through a three-way conversation involving a very defensive Casement, legendary murderer Dr Crippen and sympathetic multi-talented artist and activist Alice Milligan.
Readers can decide for themselves which parts are real and which invented in the safe knowledge that the true facts will never now come out.
Reviewer: Philip Fisher