Playing as part of the Dublin Theatre Festival ‘The Alternative’ is the new production by the Fishamble company. ‘The Alternative’ was the winner of the ‘A play for Ireland’ initiative by Fishamble – this was a two year artist development project for playwrights across the country. From 370 ideas and a short list of six, this play by Michael Patrick and Oisin Kearney has been selected as the chosen Play for Ireland.
Last night I traveled out to the Draiocht Theatre in Blanchardstown to see a performance of the piece, having sourced an early bird ticket several months ago.
‘The Alternative’ is a high concept play. What if Ireland had never gained independence from Britain? If instead of executing the 1916 rebels, Britain had treated them more leniently. Support for the Easter Rising was low in Ireland in 1916, as was the clamour for independence. Had Britain responded more moderately to the uprising, then it is quite possible that the Republic of Ireland could today still be part of the UK. As it happens Britain executed all the instigators, uniting they country behind them, and leading to the war of independence and the partition of the country in 1922.
This play is set in 2019. In a TV studio in BBC Dublin, a TV producer, his assistant and the TV presenter are preparing for a TV debate called ‘Ireland Decides’. The following day there will be a referendum on Irish independence. Debating the topic that evening will be the Prime Minister of the UK – an Irishwoman named Ursula Lysaght – who supports ‘remain’; and First Minister of the devolved Irish parliament, created after Home Rule was introduced after World War 1, Peter Keogh who supports ‘Leave’.
The topic is a fascinating one with clear parallels between the Scottish independence referendum some years ago, and of course the current Brexit debacle. The idea is spellbinding. What would have become of Ireland had we remained part of the UK? Would there have been an underground subway system in Dublin (plans by the British government from a century ago reveals that this was the intention). Would divorce, abortion and homosexuality have been decriminalised faster? Would the vice-like grip the catholic church been removed from the neck of the nation? Would The Troubles in the North have been avoided? Would the 1916 rebels be remembered as idiots instead of heroes? How would the career of Michael Collins have progressed? Would the Irish Famine be largely forgotten as it has been in Britain because of the awkward truths it tells about empire? Would Ireland’s econony have flourished in the manner that it has over the last quarter of a century if economic policy had been decided in London?
So many questions. All of them unanswerable. This part of the play is quite brilliant – enthralling, hilarious, intense. Particular praise must go to Rory Nolan as the slimy TV presenter John Fitzgibbon, who gives a side-splittingly funny performance as the venal, mega-ambitious journalist who has dreams of being promoted to BBC London. Karen Ardiff as Prime Minister Lysaght is – as always – brilliant. This is the fourth play I have seen her in over the past year – along with ‘Rathmines Road’; ‘Dublin will show you how’ and ‘The unmanageable sisters’. She plays the snooty PM to great effect here. I would venture so far as to say that Ardiff is my favourite stage actor for whom I would pay a ticket to see her reading the Argos catalogue.
Unfortunately the play has a major problem – which thankfully doesn’t sink the play. Alongside the TV debate and the preparations for the referendum, runs a major parallel plotline about the TV producer Richard Devlin (Lorcan Cranitch) and his schizophrenic daughter Grainne (Maeve Fitzgerald) who is grieving the loss of her mother. This should have been a subplot, but instead is given almost equal stage time as the main plot. I cannot understand why. It is boring and irrelevant to the main theme of the piece. The character of Grainne is whiny, and uninspiring. I think we were meant to care about her struggles. In the context of this story it was jarring and mind-numbingly dull, so much so that whenever Grainne appeared – which unfortunately was often – I threw my eyes to heaven.
Luckily the ‘Ireland decides’ section of the play is so wonderfully entertaining that it can surmount the dreariness of the schizophrenia storyline.
‘The Alternative’ plays again tonight in the Draiocht, before moving to the Lyric Theatre in Belfast for six shows next week. Recommended.