Presenting a three-part show named 'Ireland' in the National Theatre at the close of the 1916 Rising century is a project so confidently ambitious that I cannot imagine anyone but Theatreclub taking it on. The collective are gathering a sizable reputation for their theatrical political commentary, which grounds itself in their firmly held belief that art can be a catalyst for social change. In the 'Ireland' trilogy at the Abbey, these affirmations are attributed the monumental task of representing the spectres of Easter 1916 that haunt the everyday inequalities of contemporary Irish life.
The Family, Heroin and History each address various individuals subject to an uncontrollable passage of cyclical time. The Family finds its strength in introducing the nuclear unit that becomes implicitly responsible for the failure of the state in the subsequent two plays. This duty is represented in all of its emotional complexity in interchanging moments of care, conflict and enduring silence. Although perhaps more universal and ahistorical than the narration claims – ‘this is about the Irish family’ – the production resonates a distinct air of familiarity, particularly in the unrealisable attempts by characters to have a happy family dinner.
By contrast, Heroin is a play of depth rather than breadth. One of the unique characteristics of THEATREclub’s work is their commitment to egalitarian production and representation. By collaborating directly with individuals affected by their subject matter, their plays encapsulate a social authenticity rarely felt elsewhere in Irish theatre. This technique shines through in the violence and loneliness depicted in Heroin, wherein three characters share experiences of the drug from the confines of a grubby apartment. In a particularly poignant scene Lauren attempts to read a passage about sexual assault aloud to the audience against the background of the two men noisily fighting front of stage. Her pleas to ‘try and ignore them, I know they’re distracting’ delicately echo the obstacles posed to those living in self-reproducing climates of violence.
'Ireland' concludes with History, a unique piece of Irish socialist realism that traces the past century through the generational experiences of social housing residents in Keogh Square/St. Michael’s estate (previously Richmond’s Barracks: the site where leaders of the 1916 rising were court-martialled). A pompous display of commemorative clichés at the beginning of the play provides a strong contrast for the counter-narrative that follows, which effectively chronicles one hundred years of housing crises against the backdrop of ‘the right of the people of Ireland to the ownership of Ireland’. In contrast to its predecessors, this play is overtly critical of the direct role the state has played in maintaining structural inequalities. At times, however, its dialogue can be unnecessarily polemical, which somewhat undermines the play’s otherwise strong ability in portraying this reality through the distinct languages of theatre.
Perhaps the most refreshing question posed in the 'Ireland' trilogy was in History - ‘would things really have been so different if the heroes of 1916 had won?’ The suggestion here is that there is a substantial difference between the proclamation of progressive change and the implementation of it on the ground; a gap expertly dramatised in all three plays. Easter 1916 persists as a spectre precisely because it comprises a collection of ideals that fundamentally can never be fulfilled - equality and self-determination are not so much the end goals of agitation as they are continuous processes of interrogation and distortion in the chaotic cycle of history. Theatreclub’s ‘Ireland’ successfully addresses this fundamental disorder in its discursive renditions of Irish history. Amidst claims of a ‘yes equality’ Ireland, its three subsidiaries present crucial insights into the voices disavowed by official commemorative centenary narratives.
Kerry for DRAFF
'Ireland', a trilogy of work from THEATREclub, runs at the Peacock Theatre until the 26th November. Image: Ros Kavanagh