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Theatre Review Ireland's past haunts the present in dramatisation of 1916 war crime

To Have to Shoot Irishmen
Omnibus Theatre, London/Touring

AT A time when the recent history of Britain’s bloody engagement with Ireland is again in the news— the inquiry into the 1971 massacre of 11 innocent people by the Parachute Regiment in Ballymurphy is ongoing — the title alone of Lizzie Nunnery’s play, let alone its content, certainly has resonance.

Set in Dublin during the week of the 1916 Easter Rising, To Have to Shoot Irishmen is based on the events surrounding the murder of Francis Sheehy-Skeffington. “Skeffy” was a writer and radical activist in the cause of Irish independence who was captured and executed by British troops in what would now be described as a war crime. He was arrested after attempting to prevent looting by Dublin's inner-city poor.

Nunnery's brief piece, directed by Gemma Kerr for Almanac Arts, is played out in what looks like the interior of a bombed-out building. A series of expressionist snapshots, it’s interspersed with songs, and it’s particularly strong in its vivid descriptions of a city and its inhabitants ravaged by the fighting.

Through the fractured prism of the interactions between Skeffington (Gerard Kearns), his suffragist wife Hanna (a vibrant Elinor Lawless) — a proto-feminist and ardent republican supporter of James Connolly — the bewildered, half-starved soldier William (Robbie O'Neill) who guards Skeffington and British army apologist Sir Francis Vane (Russell Richardson), Nunnery seeks to present all sides of what is a tragic and disturbing narrative.

Thus Skeffington, in contrast to his republican firebrand wife, comes across as deeply troubled by the violence of the rising (“What if everyone’s wrong?”), while Vane is similarly appalled by the extrajudicial actions of British troops under the psychopathic command of Captain John C Bowen-Colthurst.

Perhaps inevitably in a play of this brevity, the characters at times come across as mere cyphers for the conflicting perspectives Nunnery explores and its subject matter certainly doesn’t readily lend itself to the even-handed approach she’s perhaps aspiring to.

The painful consequences of the rising and the later civil war are still being played out in these islands and the nationalist anthem Erin Go Bragh (“Ireland Forever”) bookending the production raises the question of what kind of Ireland we’re seeking in the here and now.

That’s an issue this heartfelt play skirts and maybe it deserves the epic scope of a full-scale dramatic orchestra, rather than what’s essentially a chamber quartet, to address it.

Runs until October 20, box office: box office@omnibus-clapham.org, then tours nationally until November 6.

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