Omnibus Theatre, London – until 20 October 2018
In a comparatively short space of time, Lizzie Nunnery has certainly made her mark. Singer-songwriter as well as playwright, her plays – of which, Narvik, her award-winning evocation of the North Atlantic, the sea and wartime love is one of the most recent – mixes all these elements into dramas that defy total categorisation. Impressionistic word-pictures, they evoke deep human levels despite the brevity her words would suggest.
Like Narvik, there are aspects of To Have to Shoot Irishmen that defy easy understanding. Instead, in Gemma Kerr’s economic but effective production for Nunnery’s own company, Almanac Arts, it is the atmosphere conjured of the complexities of a blood-riddled Dublin in the throes of the 1916 Easter Rising against a background of the Great War that propels this drama into the mind. And I suspect that will haunt those who see it for some time to come.
One of its highlights is undoubtedly the music – songs that seem rooted in authentic Irish folklore but which are apparently original to the show.
Nunnery works with Norwegian composer and producer Vidar Norheim. Together, they seem able to turn their hands to any number of different styles. If Narvik carried ocean and marine overtones, To Have to Shoot Irishmen takes us into the intense, emotion-laden fight for Irish independence with songs relating to the waste of blood spilled, the idealism and the cost and horror of one Irishman killing another.
As the voice of Elinor Lawless’ Hanna, the wife of a murdered nationalist rises, as she describes the search for him in the chaos of shattered streets, Nunnery’s descriptions and the simple musical arrangements – a note droned out on a piano, a table thumped – evoke a hideous regret and fury.
All the same, you’d have to be a connoisseur of early 20th century Irish history to fully grasp some of Nunnery’s historical references. The interesting thing is the angle she has chosen to concentrate on – a reframing of a particularly infamous event, the war crime/murder of Irish socialist, radical and campaigner for women’s suffrage, Francis Sheey-Skeffington by a `mad-dog’ Anglo-Irish Captain, one John C Bowen-Colthurst of the Royal Irish Rifles.
© Mike Massaro, Gerard Kearns as the non-violent idealist and radical, Frank (Francis Sheehy-Skeffington)
Known as `Skeffy’ and one of a circle of writers that included James Joyce, `Skeffy’ was an anti-militarist who believed in non-violent protest and intelligent analysis as tools towards achieving Irish independence. To Have to Shoot Irishmen is inspired by and based on real events, real people with Skeffy appearing as a character called Frank, Hanna’s husband.
Once again, Nunnery employs evocation rather than a Sean O’Casey type of naturalism to show some of the ideological tensions that divided a nation and Irishmen and women one from another. I can hear O’Casey’s `a plague on all your houses’ in Nunnery’s subtle critique through Frank’s plea for rationality rather than blood-lust and national self-annihilation.
© Mike Massaro, Gerard Kearns as Frank and Robbie O’Neill as William, prisoner and guard, lost in the confusion of rebellion…
So we see Frank under arrest and imprisonment in a military cell, accused but not charged for sedition whilst making a speech. We witness his conversation with a young Anglo-Irish British conscript, William awaiting further outcomes. And we are introduced to another Anglo-Irish British officer, Captain Vane whose visit to Hanna sets the scene for further examinations on the notion of duty, idealism and Irish nationalism.
But we don’t meet Bowen-Colthurst or get a fuller understanding of the mental pressures under which he was acting. For it was Bowen-Colthurst who was Frank’s nemesis ordering his summary execution along with two others.
And this is a shame.
Because the sad thing is that although Nunnery’s vision shows Captain Vane in a comparatively `benign’ light, relating the events to Hanna out of a sense of honour and morality, in real life, Vane paid for his attempt to bring Bowen-Colthurst to justice by being cashiered with a dishonourable discharge from the Army. Despite a court martial, initiated by Vane, Bowen-Colthurst, though found guilty, was found `insane’ and after a short time in Broadmoor was released to live out the rest of his days in Canada.
So much for trying to do the `right’ thing.
© Mike Massaro, Russell Richardson as Cape Vane, and Elinor Lawless as Hanna, no meeting of minds between Anglo-Irish British officer and a fierce fighter for Irish independence…
None of this, alas, figures in the play. Instead Nunnery asks what happens after a peace secured with such blood loss, an ethical and philosophical question.
To Have to Shoot Irishmen, however, remains powerful and potent, a portrait of troubled times and a complex Irish nationalist `martyr’ as well as an indictment of British militarism.
There are excellent performances, especially from Lawless’s wonderfully impassioned, full-throated Hanna, a fully realised character, from Gerard Kearns as the fierce-eyed, intense, intellectual Frank, Russell Richardson as Captain Vane endeavouring to uphold some kind of decency in a situation of chaos and confusion and Robbie O’Neill as the naive, overwhelmed young guard, William.
Considering our own troubled times and uncertainty regarding Irish borders following Brexit, Omnibus’ current Irish season is to be congratulated as is its artistic director, Marie McCarthy who over four and a half years has not only sustained Omnibus but created real momentum for this former library on the corner of Clapham Common.
Hooray for her. Hooray for them!
Frank: Gerard Kearns
Hanna: Elinor Lawless
William: Robbie O’Neill
Vane: Russell Richardson
Director: Gemma Kerr
Set and Costume Designer: Rachel Rooney
Lighting Designer: Richard Owen
Original music by Vidar Norheim and Lizzie Nunnery
Sound Designer/Musical Director: Vidar Norheim
Dramaturg: Lindsay Rodden
Assistant Director: Chantell Walker
Associate Producer: Claire Bigley
Assistant Producer: Alex Stringer
Consultant Producer: Amy Fisher
Design Mentor: Katie Scott
Presented by Almanac Arts in association with Liverpool Irish Festival and Claire Bigley
Supported by Oppenheim-John Downes Memorial Trust
The script was originally commissioned by Druid.
To Have to Shoot Irishmen opened at the Omnibus Theatre, London on Oct 2, 2018 and runs to Oct 20, 2018. Then visits Liverpool Everyman Oct 25-27, 2018
This review published on this site Oct 7, 2018
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