Signatories – Olympia Theatre – Review by Lisa Jewell
Verdant Productions in association with University College Dublin [UCD] & MCD – runs until Saturday 8 October 2016 at The Olympia Theatre
Director: Patrick Mason
Stars: Barbara Brennan, Roseanna Purcell, Stephen Jones, Shane O’Reilly, Joe Taylor, Ronan Leahy, Frank McCusker, Karen McCartney
Signatories received its world premiere at Kilmainham Gaol back in April, marking the anniversary of the 1916 Easter Rising. It also played at a number of smaller venues during the spring and is now on at The Olympia Theatre for a limited run until this Saturday (8-10-16). It’s an ambitious piece of work – UCD commissioned eight world class Irish writers to bring their talents to monologues that are either voiced by or connected to seven of the Proclamation signatories. In addition there is a solo piece voiced by Elizabeth O’Farrell, who was a nurse and messenger during the Rising and is delivered by her older self, in recollection of what she experienced.
The writers include Emma Donoghue, Eilis Ni Dhuibhne, Marina Carr, Joseph O’Connor, Thomas Kilroy, Hugo Hamilton, Rachel Fehily, Frank McGuinness and Éamonn Ceannt. The previous staging at Kilmainham Gaol must have been atmospheric to say the least and transferring it to a traditional theatre involves a more minimalist set. The characters are seated in the background of the stage and all listen attentively while the characters in the foreground deliver their monologues one by one. In most cases, the characters are speaking in the moments before their execution by firing squad so as you would expect, emotions run high as they talk about what has happened and what they expect will come.
To sit down and write the monologues of real life people like Patrick Pearse or Thomas Clarke must be a daunting task – while we may know biographical details of their life, it’s hard to know the more nuanced parts of their personalities. How they spoke, how they moved, what their most innermost thoughts were. It’s an onerous task for any writer because at the same time, the theatre-going public may either have their own opinions already about the signatories or else be unfamiliar with some or all of them.
In a way, the writers have artistic licence to do what they wish but they can also be harshly judged for straying from what other people’s views or expectations may be. To give an example, I felt that the writing and portrayal of Patrick Pearse was ‘off’ and didn’t resemble who the man was. But then, I found myself questioning where I got this impression of who he was in the first place! Ultimately, the play could only deliver a version of who Pearse was and it’s interesting how this can be received by an audience who’ve grown up hearing about all these legends but have rarely seen a dramatic portrayal of them.
Before the show, I decided not to read up on which writer wrote which monologue. I felt the writing was uneven with two or three of the monologues (Patrick Pearse, Eamonn Ceannt and Thomas Clarke) on the weaker side while the writing in the remaining monologues was more impressive and gave the actors more to work with. The monologues delivered by Sean McDermott’s former fiancé and Thomas McDonagh were particularly emotional and engaging.
Any piece of literature written by a collection of writers is bound to show differences and this may be the very point of the play. It just means that, as a piece, some stylistic differences appear and that, to me, was quite noticeable. What shines through in the production though is the quality of acting and the production values. While my interest may have waned through a couple of the monologues, the piece managed to build drama towards the end and certainly got the audience thinking about who these people really were and what the Rising symbolised for them.
Elizabeth O’Farrell by Emma Donoghue, who was nominated for an Oscar for her screenplay of her novel Room.
Padraig Pearse by Thomas Kilroy, whose awards include the Guardian Fiction Prize, the Heinemann Award for Literature, the AIG Literary Prize and the Irish PEN award.
Éamonn Ceannt by Frank McGuinness, Tony Award winner, New York Drama Critics Circle award winner, and Irish PEN award winner.
Thomas MacDonagh by Marina Carr, winner of the EM Forster award from the American Academy of Arts and Letters and the Susan Smith Blackburn prize for women playwrights.
Sean McDermott by Éilís Ní Dhuibhne, winner of the Bisto Book of the Year and the Irish PEN award, as well as shortlisted for the Orange Prize for Fiction.
James Connolly by Hugo Hamilton, winner of the Rooney Prize for Irish Literature, the Priz Femina Etranger, and the Premio Giuseppe Berto for French and Italian translations of his work.
Joseph Mary Plunkett by Joseph O’Connor, among his awards are France’s Prix Millepages, Italy’s Premio Acerbi, the Irish Post Award for Fiction, the Neilsen Bookscan Golden Book Award, an American Library Association Award, the Hennessy/Sunday Tribune Hall of Fame Award, and the Prix Litteraire Zepter for European Novel of the Year.
Thomas Clarke by Rachel Fehily, a recent graduate of the playwriting strand of the UCD MA in Drama and Performance Studies and an emerging talent in the Irish theatre scene
The performance will be delivered by some of the country’s most outstanding actors;
Nurse Elizabeth O’Farrell (Barbara Brennan)
Sean MacDiarmada (Roseanna Purcell)
Thomas MacDonagh (Stephen Jones)
Joseph Mary Plunkett (Shane O’Reilly)
Thomas Clarke (Joe Taylor)
Éamonn Ceannt (Ronan Leahy)
Padraig Pearse (Frank McCusker)
James Connolly (Karen McCartney)
Produced by: Verdant Productions
Costume Designer: Catherine Fay
Music/Sound Designer: Denis Clohessy