The Unsung Hero – Theatre Upstairs – Review by Fran Winston
Theatre Upstairs until April 2nd Monday – Saturday 7pm. Wednesday and Saturday 1pm. Tickets €10/12
With the 1916 commemorations in full swing you may think that at this stage you know everything there is to know about the Rising and the brave men and women who fought in it. You would however be wrong as this tale will attest.
It tells the story of Michael Joseph O’Rahilly and his wife Nannie. You many never have heard of him but he was actually one of the co-founders of the Irish Volunteers and fought alongside James Connolly et al that fateful Easter. So why is his name not listed alongside all the martyrs who died for the cause? Quite simply because he died after being shot as they evacuated the GPO so therefore was never captured or publicly executed like the others. That does not make his story any less fascinating or relevant though and thanks to playwright David Gilna it is finally being told. Gilna is fortunate enough to know O’Rahilly’s granddaughter Iseult Broglio who gave him full access to her grandparent’s letters and records. Using this he has crafted a piece that is part reflective documentary, part historical drama and part love story.
Starring Conor Delaney and Roseanna Purcell, the pair jump between commentating on events of the era to playing the doomed lovebirds and narrating newscasts regarding the Rising. It is an unusual way of telling the story but one that really works. By turning this into something that resembles one of the reconstruction shows you see on television – where talking heads discuss the events before performers act it out – it gives it a fresh and contemporary feel. It would have been easy to do a straightforward period piece but this technique works well particularly for the Twitter and Facebook generations who want their information fast, concise and relatable.
Predominately telling the fascinating love story between the pair, Michael’s strong political views are always bubbling under the surface of their relationship and things finally come to a head that fateful Easter weekend in 1916. The scenes in the GPO are handled very well using sound effects to create atmosphere and an upturned table to represent the rooftop. Somehow they managed to get letters to each other during this time and these are used as the basis for these scenes. The whole thing is thoughtfully directed by Michael Scott who has really got to the heart of the story.
Even if this was a work of fiction it would be a hugely engaging piece of theatre. The fact that it is not simply makes it even more poignant. Although you know the ending you find yourself hoping for a different outcome and it is surprising how much you get swept up in it. If I had one small criticism it would be that there seemed to be sound issues when I attended. They use several different microphones and the sound didn’t always switch seamlessly between them so maybe they need to look at managing this. But that is a minor quibble and may well have been a one off.
The night I attended this the guest of honour was O’Rahilly’s granddaughter Iseult Broglio who was visibly moved to witness her grandparents story played out on the stage. Equally moved were the cast and crew who gave it their all knowing that she was in the audience. It was a very special moment to watch her seeing this work for the first time and the fact that it has her approval is a testament to its accuracy and reverence for its subject.
There are plenty of plays dealing with 1916 subject matter at the moment but this is probably the only one that will tell you something you didn’t know already and give you a new slant on it. With excellent writing, direction and performances it is a truly moving theatrical experience. It has humour, pathos, high drama and passion and it deserves to be seen.