Theatre death-match: ‘Signatories’ versus ‘Eirebrushed’

The Olympia Theatre on Dame Street is currently hosting a play called ‘Signatories’. A show, written by eight Irish authors, comprising eight separate segments – with seven of them focusing on the signatories of the Proclamation of the Irish Republic, and one on Nurse Elizabeth O’Farrell, who delivered the rebels’ surrender at the failed 1916 Easter Rising.

I went to see it last night.

As this year is the centenary of the thwarted Rising that ultimately lead to Irish independence, the whole year (and especially since Easter) has seen a vast range of commemorative events all over the city. Theatre shows, museum exhibitions, walking tours, re-enactments, state events. I’ve seen quite a few of them – living in the city centre, and close to the actual sites of action has made this easy.

It has caused a slight sense of Revolution fatigue at this point in the year though. Dare I say it, I am looking forward to January 1st when the city will slow down to a less rebellious pace.

I was looking forward this show. For starters the Olympia is a beautiful 19th century music hall and is designed in a fantastically gaudy and tacky manner, with its arched ceilings and ornate décor. Location, decoration, location.

The writers of the pieces are all well known names – including personal favourites  Emma Donoghue and Joseph O’Connor, along with luminaries like Frank McGuinness, Marina Carr among others. The stories hold potential – we all know the myths and stories surrounding the Rising, but aside from Padraig Pearse, the individual stories of the other six signatories and Elizabeth O’Farrell are less well known, and ripe for exploration.

During the Troubles in Northern Ireland, the stories of 1916 were deemed a little suspect – we learned the bare facts at school, and that was it. No context or interpretation was offered. It was perhaps not wise to be celebrating an armed insurrection from the past, while a similar scenario was being played out a few miles up the road.

Since the Peace Process in the North, and the fact that those who were alive and involved in 1916 are all now dead, a deeper analysis can happen. This was what I was looking forward to. An investigation of the motives and characters of these legendary figures of Irish history – those brave, romantic, foolhardy, idealistic scholars and patriots, who must have known their attempts were doomed to failure. Not a soldier among them, they decided that they would try anyway.

Did the play succeed? Well, in parts.

The eight actors are all seated on the stage at the same time. One by one they are announced, they rise and tell the tale of the character they are portraying through the words of the writer. Not once did the performers interact directly with one and other.

The major problem, I think, was that there was no collaboration between the eight writers. All talented in their own rights, they were not given any restrictions on how to interpret the characters. Nor were the stories placed in any narrative context. As a result it felt disjointed and haphazard.

It started with the character of Elizabeth O’Farrell – the only one of the eight who escaped execution for her part in the Rising. Also the only non-signatory. She went on to become a midwife, who lived a long life with her partner Julia Grenan – with whom she is buried in the Republican Plot in Glasnevin Cemetery. She was the person who delivered surrender to Britain. She was later airbrushed out of press pictures of the surrender.

Such an interesting character. A lesbian, a rebel, the woman who walked into the heavy artillery of Moore Street fire to deliver surrender to the colonial superpower, one of only three women remaining in the Post Office. Emma Donoghue’s piece  really didn’t do her justice. The narrative was dull. This may have been partly  to do with Barbara Brennan’s performance which was overacted to the point that the character appeared to be a whining auld wan, instead of a fascinating forgotten hero. Which is surprising considering how talented Brennan is – as displayed so admirably in ‘Town is dead’ in the Peacock Theatre earlier this year.

The rest of the pieces varied in quality, but rarely were they special. I suppose the risk of asking eight prose writers to create stage monologues is that what works on the page doesn’t work on the stage.

The highlights were the piece about Sean McDiarmada – as told through the eyes of his fiancée Min Ryan (played by Roseanna Purcell). That was a very amusing and informative performance. It was welcome comic relief to the seriousness of the preceding pieces. The best was saved for last – Joseph O’Connor’s piece about Joseph Mary Plunkett (played by Shane O’Reilly) was hilarious, and heart-breaking. If only the others had been of the same standard. The sound of gunshot to signify his comrades being executed as he narrated the piece was chilling.

It was an interesting idea, but considering the talent of the writers it was somewhat of a wasted opportunity.

It brought to mind another recent show also concerning the 1916 Rising.

‘Eirebrushed’ by Brian Merriman, was part of the Dublin Gay Theatre Festival this year. In a manner similar to ‘Signatories’ it looks at four people involved in the Rising – Elizabeth O’Farrell; Padraig Pearse, Roger Casement and Eva Gore Booth.

The four characters meet in the afterlife, one hundred years after the Rising to discuss whether the noble, equal republic of their revolutionary ambition has been achieved.

The fact that Elizabeth O’Farrell’s face was airbrushed out of official surrender pictures is what inspired the play title. But the homosexuiality of these four characters has also been erased or diminished by historians in the years since. Irish revolutionary heroes couldn’t be benders after all. Sure weren’t Roger Casement’s notorious Black Diaries, an elaborate and extensive forgery by the Brits to paint him as a dirty queer and therefore unworthy of heroism? Hence the title ‘Eirebrushed’ – brushed out of the official record.

It’s a better play than ‘Signatories’. For starters there is a common narrative thread, that the four characters are bound by. While the characters also perform monologues, to tell their tales, there is actually an interaction between them. This creates a better sense of movement and tension between the characters, and drives the story along.

Having one writer, instead of eight is clearly a more effective way to create a play. Unless you have a director who can ruthlessly keep writers in line with his vision, then an eight parter will be incredibly difficult to pull off.

‘Eirebrushed’ – without the benefit of a big budget, and eight giants of the Irish literary scene – was the superior play’

‘Signarories’ is on for three more performances in the Olympia. ‘Eirebrushed’ is coming back to the Sean O’Casey Theatre on Friday November 4th.

If you are in the mood for a 1916 play, then I can recommend ‘Eirebrushed’.





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