This review was originally written for The Reviews Hub
Amid the bunting and pageantry that has marked the 400th anniversary of Shakespeare’s death and the Queen’s 90th birthday, another landmark has gone somewhat unnoticed in the public consciousness. Exactly a century ago last weekend, on Easter Monday 1916, around 1200 armed members of the Irish Volunteers and the Irish Citizen Army seized control of areas of central Dublin. The week-long battle that followed between them and the British forces that occupied the city saw the loss of 500 lives, and has been immortalised in Irish history as a watershed moment in the struggle for Irish independence. As Yeats wrote, “All changed, changed utterly”.
Christopher Bland’s new play, The Easter Rising And Thereafter, charts the progress of this struggle. And that of the ensuing War Of Independence. And that of the ensuing Civil War. And that of the ensuing domestic strife that pockmarked Irish life throughout the 20th Century. It’s a warm-hearted and moving evocation of a significant swathe of Irish history that is woefully underserved in the history textbooks and theatres of modern Britain.
Bland combines drama, poetry, music and argument to weave a rich story of determined freedom fighters, vicious oppressors and glorious martyrs in an all-too-short 90 minutes. A cast of eight, of different ages and from different periods of Irish history, sit around in a warmly lit living room/pub and take it in turns to carry the narrative forward, battling against interruptions and protestations as they do.
Like Hector marshalling his schoolboys in the French scene in Alan Bennett’s The History Boys, Ruairi Conaghan and Keith Dunphy – as the poets Louis MacNeice and James Clarence Mangan respectively – cajole the other six cast members into performing short scenes, speeches and songs to decorate the history. The two poets own friendly antagonism – Mangan was a Catholic nationalist, MacNeice a Protestant Ulsterman – provides a spark throughout. Grainne Keenan and Maeve O’Sullivan never allow women’s contributions to the Independence movement to be forgotten.
There are moments of heart-rending sadness. When Michael Mahony reads out a letter from The O’Rahilly to his wife and children, penned as he lay dying on a Dublin street, the tenderness of his writing is unbearably poignant. No less stirring is Tim Van Eyken’s re-enactment of Sir Roger Casement’s speech from the dock, where he had just been sentenced to execution for trying to secure German military aid for the Irish nationalists. “The government of Ireland by England rests on restraint and not on law”, he declares, “and, since it demands no love, it can evoke no loyalty.”
There is romanticism here, of course, but it is controlled and restrained. When it bubbles over, like when Jack Beale’s recites part of Eamonn de Valera’s ‘ideal Ireland’ speech, it is respectfully dismissed, but taken to heart nonetheless. It is in the songs, both in Gaelic and English, that that quintessential Irish passion is given full flight. Traditional songs like The Shan Van Vocht mix with 20th Century work, like Dominic Behan’s The Patriot Game, to which Bland himself has penned an ironic reply, The Martyrdom Game. It’s a powerful and amusing send-up of the repetitiveness of Irish history, which is the stark message that Bland seems keenest to impart.
The Easter Rising And Thereafter is more than a history lesson, though. Donnacadh O’Briain’s production of Bland’s play is a deep, soulful and arresting exploration of a hugely important part of Irish – and British – history.