Bloody Phoenix – Bewley’s Cafe Theatre – Walkabout Theatre – Review
by Frank L.
Bloody Phoenix – Written and directed by Michael James Ford
With the lockdown lifting, Bewley’s Cafe Theatre has commissioned several works to be performed in public spaces out of doors in front of small audiences. The first of these is Bloody Phoenix, which takes place in the Phoenix Park at the site where on 6th of May 1882, Lord Frederick Cavendish, the newly appointed Chief Secretary for Ireland, and Thomas Henry Burke, the Permanent under Secretary, were assassinated by stabbing. Burke was the intended sole victim but by chance, he was walking back to his house with Lord Frederick who had only arrived in Dublin earlier that day. The murders shocked the British Empire and had both short and long term political consequences. Surrounding the assassinations, there is a mass of historical detail which makes telling the story a challenge, as does the vast numbers of people involved.
Ford uses a clever device of a movie director and his somewhat hassled producer to tell the tale in approximately fifty minutes. The audience assembles near the entrance to the Papal Cross car park, where we encounter the producer (Melissa Nolan). Shortly afterwards the director (Matthew O’Brien) arrives. She gives him the latest reaction to the script and how casting is going. In this department, they are aiming high. He starts to explain various shots he has in mind of the assassins arriving in the park but also to the almost festive atmosphere in Dublin with the arrival of the newly appointed Lord Frederick and his boss Lord Spencer. Hopes were high that things would be different from what had gone before and the policy of coercion would become a thing of the past.
In this story, there is a vast panoply of characters who are important and Ford in his text deftly introduces them into the story as the director outlines his vision of various shots to the producer who raises foreseeable problems often of cost. Meanwhile, we are moving closer to the spot where the assassinations took place in sight of the then Vice Regal Lodge now Áras an Uachtaráin. The combination of the conversation between director and producer and the location itself draws the audience into the horrors of the story.
At the actual scene of the crime, the producer acts out, for the benefit of the producer, the immediate events before the attack and then the attack itself. Afterwards, they sit on a bench to reflect on the events and their consequences for those immediately involved, in particular Lord Frederick’s widow Lucy, a niece of Prime Minister William Gladstone by marriage.
After the play finishes and the applause is over, the audience is led to a small memorial for Lord Frederick Cavendish and Thomas Henry Burke which in its modesty and simplicity somehow magnifies what the audience has experienced.
This is a thoughtful and clever production that brings to contemporary audiences the facts surrounding a momentous event in Irish history that has to an extent fallen out of public consciousness. Ford and Bewley’s Cafe Theatre have done a service in returning it to public view. O’Brien, Nolan and the location itself bring the events back into a magnificent, if undoubtedly grim, reality. Go and see it if you can!