Wednesday, 4 May 2016

Three Irish Icons - Mayfesto 2016

When Andy Arnold first began Mayfesto at the Tron Theatre in Glasgow, the idea behind the annual season of socially pertinent theatre was to fill a gap left behind by the long defunct trade union backed arts festival, Mayfest. While this chimed with a wider interest in politically engaged drama, Arnold's programmes have consistently cast a net which has combined the contemporary and the historical from both Scottish artists as well as those from further afield.

All this is captured in this year's Mayfesto, which focuses on the one hundredth anniversary of the Easter Rising, when Irish republicans attempted to end British rule by way of an armed insurrection that left its mark on politics in both Ireland and the UK forever after. While Arnold's love of Irish drama in general pulses his programme, three works in particular focus on very different Irish icons, both of the Easter Rising itself, and of the previous Irish rebellion of 1798.

The Tron's own production sees Arnold direct Shall Roger Casement Hang? This new play by Peter Arnott looks at the incarceration and interrogation of the British diplomat turned human rights activist and republican gun-runner, who was executed for treason following his role in the Rising.

To compliment this, Dublin's Rough Magic company revive Stewart Parker's 1984 play, Northern Star, which dramatises the last days of Henry Joy McCracken, the leader of the United Irishmen, who was similarly executed following the 1798 rebellion. The play finds McCracken holed up in Belfast, where, in a theatrical gag par excellence, his rhetoric channels the voices of great Irish dramatists, from Sean O'Casey to Samuel Beckett.

Prior to both plays, Mayfesto's first big production comes with a look at the altogether more familiar figure of James Connolly, the man long recognised as the Easter Rising's greatest figure. In Connolly, Scottish actor Brian McCardie performs a one-man play written by himself, and which looks at the more personal aspects of a man better known as a political figurehead.

McCardie's interest in Connolly stems from extensive research he carried out after being cast as the great Irish Socialist in Rebellion, a TV mini series broadcast by Ireland's national broadcaster, RTE, this year.

“I couldn't believe how little people know about him,” says McCardie. “I knew he was an important fella', and that he'd been born in Edinburgh in Cowgate, but because of that he sits between two stools. People in Scotland don't really know about him because he went to Ireland, and people in Ireland don't really know about him because he wasn't Irish.

“I wanted to redress all that, and try and get to the man behind the myth, like how he had a major stutter, and spent seven years in America, and how his wife Lily was in some ways the brains of the operation, because she was educated and Connolly wasn't. One of the important things about him as well is that he was a Socialist, and was vigorously non-sectarian.”

McCardie became so engrossed with the history of Connolly and the Easter Rising that while filming Rebellion he took to taking a small bag of books on set with him, just in case the action veered a little too far from a historically accurate portrait of events.

“They kept trying to change things to make it more dramatic, so you had to keep them right, otherwise when it was screened in Ireland no-one would take it seriously.”

While Connolly was only scheduled to run for two nights, a third matinee show has been added to sate audience demand, and McCardie is keen to tour his eminently portable play as far and wide as possible.

“It's the sort of thing I could play anywhere,” McCardie says. “Connolly is a huge figure, and I think it's important to show what was going on behind everything he did that was so immense.”

Northern Star has already opened at the Project Arts Centre in Dublin, and will play in Belfast following the show's Glasgow performances. The production will be directed by Rough Magic founder Lynne Parker, whose work with the company is familiar to Scottish audiences by way of her productions of Improbable Frequencies on the Edinburgh Festival Fringe, and a staging of Seamus Heaney's translation of ancient epic poem, Beowulf, at the Tron itself.

As a niece of the late playwright regarded as one of Northern Ireland's great twentieth century writers for works such as Pentecost, Parker has long held a desire to stage her uncle's play.

“I wanted to do it years ago,” she says, “but at the time the Lyric Theatre in Belfast still had the rights, so ended up doing another of his plays, Nightshade, instead. Although I remember Stewart as a great person, whose whole approach to theatre influenced me enormously, I do remember him writing Northern Star, and the sense of mischief he had about him, putting all these different theatrical voices into the play.”

“In this way history becomes fun, and the play is written with an immense wit and humanity, and it's about how these wonderful ideas and philosophy became eroded after the '98 rebellion, and how the same cycle keeps repeating itself.”

For Arnott, Shall Roger Casement Hang? too has been a long time coming, and marks something of an anniversary for himself as well as the Easter Rising.

“It's thirty years ago this year since I told the Tron I wanted to write a play about Roger Casement,” Arnott remembers, “and they said why didn't I write one about Scotland's Roger Casement instead. I said who, and ended up writing a play about Thomas Muir instead.”

Beyond any similarities with the Glasgow born radical, who himself had dealings with the United Irishmen, Casement was a remarkable figure whose life is ripe for dramatisation.

“What I tend to find is that people either know everything about casement, or they know nothing,” Arnott observes. “Here was an Ulster Protestant and knight of the realm who went into the jungle on his own intent on exposing Belgian genocide, and who ended up being executed for high treason. He knew Joseph Conrad, and was the basis for Conrad's novel, Heart of Darkness, so when he landed off the coast of Ireland in a German submarine on Good Friday 1916 he was quite a famous man.”

Casement's homosexuality may have also been a key factor in his fate.

“A diary of real and imagined sexual encounters was found by Special Branch, who used it to try and destroy his reputation. The British government did everything they could to find a reason not to execute him, but in the end pleas for leniency didn't count.”

The play's form focuses on Casement's interrogation, with its claustrophobic style inspired in part by Sidney Lumet's 1972 film, The Offence.

“There's enough scope with Casement to do something on a David Lean type scale, but to concentrate on Casement's interrogation makes for something really intense.

“I've always liked traitors,” Arnott confesses. “They're such rich characters, especially when they're involved in key moments in history. History is contested territory, and people have very different attachments to the Easter Rising, so it's really interesting having a whole season of work based around it. It's like throwing a rock into a pool and see where the ripples go.”

Mayfesto runs at the Tron Theatre, Glasgow until May 28. Connolly, May6-7; Northern Star, May 11-14; Shall Roger Casement Hang?, May 20-28.
www.tron.co.uk

The Herald, May 4th 2016

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