Friendly Fire – Review by Frances Winston
43 East Essex St, Temple Bar, Dublin 2
Runs Septemer 29th – Octoer 11th @ 7.30pm nightly
Acclaimed Irish poet Francis Ledwidge gets the biographical treatment in this offering penned by Gerard Humphreys. For those of you not familiar with him I should probably issue a spoiler alert before telling you that the Slane native was killed in action at the age of 29 in the Battle of Passchendaele during World War I. His work used to be a standard part of the Irish school curriculum before it faded from popularity but he has enjoyed somewhat of a revival in recent years thanks to the World War I centenary so this play seems timely.
Although he died relatively young he accomplished a lot in that time and fitting it all into a 90 minute play is a big task. Picking up just before disillusioned Ledwidge joins the army following a failed miners strike we learn that his poetry is already getting him into trouble when he publishes a verse about his love Ellie much to the chagrin of her brothers. When she marries another due to his lack of prospects he takes up with another local lass Shivvie but his heart remains with Ellie as he is shipped off to fight.
Despite being on the battlefield he manages to have his poetry published thanks to his patron Lord Dunsany and is also enjoying a stellar career in the army when he learns of the events of Easter 1916 during a visit back home on leave. With his nationalist tendencies rising to the fore he finds himself court martialed and stripped of his rank before being sent back to the battlefields that would eventually become his final resting place.
Real life is often stranger than fiction and there is no denying Ledwidge led a colourful and fascinating life. Unfortunately this doesn’t really translate into a stage setting. Ian Meehan does a good job as the titular character but the reality is that this play drags on somewhat. On the night I attended many of the actors visibly stumbled over lines which didn’t help with the pacing and the fact that the audience applauded at what they thought was the interval only to have another scene begin shows just how disjointed this is. It is as if Humphrey’s couldn’t decide which aspect of Ledwidge’s life he wanted to focus on and in trying to encompass everything the whole thing feels somewhat diluted. A scene between Ledwidge and Dunsany feels completely dragged out and shoehorned in for exposition. Using Anthony Kinahan to play Dunsany as well as Ledwidge’s best friend Timmie also proves ill advised. Kinahan is more than up to the task but the scene is very long and he has been so established as Timmie that it detracts from what Humphreys is trying to say and it really would have better to bring in another actor for this role.
Even if you don’t know how Ledwidge’s life ended the conclusion is hugely predictable. They may as well have a sign hanging over the stage saying he dies! When it finally happens it is somewhat of a relief after yet another incredibly ill thought out and protracted scene – this time between Timmie and Ledwidge in the trenches.
This could have been a love letter to one of Ireland’s finest peasant poets but instead it just feels messy and all over the place. Humphreys clearly wanted to do him justice but by trying to focus on everything you get a sense of nothing. Also, his poetry falls flat here and feels like it is being reeled off rather than delivered with real heart. As with a lot of biographical pieces there is an assumption that the audience have a knowledge of the subject which is ill advised as it means the characters are somewhat underdeveloped. That said I think on the whole this will generate mixed feelings. On the night I attended several people left after the interval however several others gave it a standing ovation.
There are some funny lines but the dialogue definitely needs work and the pacing should be far snappier. This is partly down to the performances. Supposed to come in at 90 minutes plus a 15 minute interval it ran over by almost 20 minutes at my viewing and this could be picked up. However there is also a lot of repetition and exposition in the script which could be edited as it really pulls the play down.
I felt its heart was in the right place but the execution and focus needed work. Fans of Ledwidge’s work will probably enjoy this but for those looking for a dramatic piece of biographical theatre it will disappoint.
Friendly Fire – Runs Septemer 29th – Octoer 11th @ 7.30pm nightly