Unshakeable Spirits: A Fit Wife for a Revolutionary

First Written for The Reviews Hub

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Writer: Sharon Sexton
Director: Cillian O’Donnachadha
Reviewer: Laura Marriott

A Fit Wife For a Revolutionary focuses in on the rarely mentioned Kathleen Clarke, wife of the first signatory of the Proclamation Thomas Clarke and a revolutionary in her own right. Her story is fascinating and Sharon Sexton is marvellous as Kathleen Clarke.

The play encompasses the events of Easter week 1916. From the days immediately preceding the Rising before ending with her husband’s execution. Unlike the many women who were active in the Rising Clarke spent Easter week alone at home, frustrated and always hoping for news of her husband. She had been trusted by the Irish Republican Brotherhood to guard their secret documents and finances and to ensure their safe keeping in the event of the leaders’ deaths.
Her strength, love and passion are inspiring and take on an enhanced resonance when considered in the light of the plethora of 1916 works that have emerged this year. The final moments are particularly are delicate and moving. The play’s title comes from something another woman said to Clarke when she realised how strongly she supported the Rising. Meant as an insult for Kathleen it rang true and she took it as a compliment. It is important to note that this is not a self-important, lecturing piece. There are moments of humour throughout and one can see that it was written with a real interest in the play’s subject. It helps to make the events of that famous week feel close and familiar.

Smock Alley Boy’s School is the perfect setting for A Fit Wife For A Revolutionary. The play begins with Clarke praying in the old church windows, looking down over the audience before she descends and speaks on our level. The play makes use of the unusual theatre setting. The different levels, the empty brick windows that once were part of a church.

Sexton is an accomplished and experienced actress who commands the stage as Clarke. Remarkably this is her playwriting debut. It is fully rounded, powerful and timely. Hopefully, this marks the beginning of a second career for Sexton as a writer. It is also well researched and feels authentic, as does the set which includes an old singer sewing machine, writing desk, a doll’s basket and table that at times doubles for a shop counter. This centenary year has seen an outpouring art to commemorate and investigate 1916 and its legacy, much of which has focused on trying to reintegrate the women back into the Easter Rising narrative; however, A Fit Wife For A Revolutionary is without doubt one of the finest pieces of work to emerge this year.

Runs until 3 December 2016 | Image: Contributed

Review Overview

The Reviews Hub Score: 4.5*

Key Word: Powerful

DTF: These Rooms

First Written for The Reviews Hub

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Directors: David Bolger & Louise Lowe

Reviewer: Laura Marriott

ANU have returned to Dublin Theatre Festival with an immersive live theatre performance created in collaboration with CoisCéim Dance Theatre Group. Together they have created These Rooms a truly unique experience that incorporates film, dance, visual art and theatre.

ANU often tackle the history of Ireland. Recent years have given them ample material to work with as they have investigated the history, memory and legacy of the First World War and the 1916 Easter Rising. They have done this with great success, their recent production of Pals: The Irish at Gallipoliat Collins Barracks winning multiple theatre awards. With These Rooms ANU take a rather unusual way of dealing with 1916; exploring the lives of the bystanders and civilians whose homes on North King Street were invaded. 15 civilians were killed by British soldiers. The consequences were devastating and ANU use the eye witness testimonies of 38 female voices to piece this story together and the effect it had over the coming years. It is an important reminder of how the great political moments of an age have intensely personal and individual consequences.

Entering the performance venue from the street audience members are ushered into a bar with chairs and tables dotted about the space. As people file in and take their seats scenes of black and white footage of the 1966 commemorations of the 1916 Rising are shown on a small television. The footage of 1966 asks the question: who does the Rising belong too? In whose name was the action taken?

Performers take their positions within the audience, physically taking you on a journey through the different rooms of the house. ANU have been cited in the Irish Times as being Ireland’s leading site–specific specialists and for good reason. As These Rooms show the building is just as much a player in the piece as each performer. Behind the closed pub doors the trauma and memories are locked away from view. The attention to detail is stunning. This is a physical and intimate piece, sometimes uncomfortably so, that is ambitious in its attempt to engage the audience with their social history. Experience Irish history and revolutionary theatre at close hand with this excellent performance of These Rooms.

Runs until 16 October as part of the Dublin Theatre Festival | Image: contributed

Review Overview

The Reviews Hub Score: 4.5*

Key Word: Mesmerising

1916 and Cultural Separation

This is my ‘soap box’ talk from The Souvenir Shop 1916 art exhibition in May 1016

Recently I have been involved in a wonderful art exhibition called The Souvenir Shop, situated on North Great Georges Street, Dublin 1. The Souvenir Shop is a part of the 1916 commemorations and took a unique view on the Rising and the way in which it is remembered. As a part of my work there my colleagues and I each presented a one off ‘soap box’ talk loosely inspired by the exhibition. Here is mine:

 

For anyone living in or even visiting Dublin this year it would be virtually impossible to not notice the centenary celebrations of the 1916 Uprising. It was incredible to watch the silence that fell on O’Connell Street during the main commemorations as the proclamation was read out. How often is today’s society will you see up to half a million people gathered together in silence, without mobile phones photographing every moment, as so many people connect with their history. But whose history is it?

 

The 50th anniversary of the rising in 1966 came as Taoiseach Sean Lemass was hoping to both secure Ireland’s place and future within the European Economic Community, whilst also improving relations with Britain and Northern Ireland. At one point he wrote that “the Rising of 1916 belongs to nobody if it does not belong to the people of Ireland. Some of them are proud of the Rising, others would disown it if they could, and there are quite a number . . . who are so indifferent that talk about it bores them. Nevertheless the 1916 Rising is theirs”. Aware of the need to clarify the meaning and relevance of the Rising to an Ireland of the 1960s whilst also honouring the men and women of 1916, was a difficult task.

 

Even when the government gathered in 1965 to discuss the direction for the golden jubilee they faced criticisms that they had not fully embraced a cross party opinion. Who owned the Rising? Who had the right to decide how it should be remembered and what it should mean when they could never escape the fact that since the momentous events of that Easter week, the six northern provinces had not been included in the new Irish Republic? A form of partition existed on the island of Ireland.

 

In the event images of a ‘modern’ Ireland that looked forward just as much as back dominated the commemorations. Lemass pushed for peace and harmony to be the defining ideas of the commemorations. However this was easier said than done. Being only 50 years after the event it lived on in memory and family history for many. Remember that it was only a few months before that Nelson’s column had been blown up by the IRA. Republicans were frequently vocal about their feelings of betrayal. This came most from the female relatives of the signatories. The Souvenir Shop is inspired in part by Thomas Clarke, the first of the signatories, newsagents and tobacconist. In 1966 his widow, angered by the description of Pearse as “the first President of the Provisional Government” argued that “surely Pearse should have been satisfied with the honour of commander-in-chief when he knew as much about commanding as my dog”. This feeling was felt by others. On the day of the official commemorations an alternative parade, coordinated by the National Graves Association, was held. It included a much larger crowd which included the sisters of signatory Sean MacDiarmada. As we can see the idea of who is a hero, a martyr, worthy of remembrance is an issue that remains to this day and is perhaps best shown by the candles that are a part of this exhibition, that place Patrick Pearse, De Valera and Bobby Sands, among others on the same shelf. In contrast to this no state sponsored events took place in Northern Ireland. In the end only the nationalist community celebrated the anniversary, who largely saw it in terms of (re)unification.

 

Although many of the issues that plagued the run up to the 50th anniversary are still present today there were many similarities between the commemorations of 1966 and 2016. In both cases a military parade marched along O’Connell Street, being sure to pass by the centrepiece of the rising, the GPO. Pageants, religious services and art exhibitions were held. Also RTE dedicated much of its schedule to programmes related to, however tenuously, the Rising. Art has always been one of the ways in which people remember, celebrate, interpret and understand their history and its place in their current society. Rita Duffy has approached the Rising from a northern nationalist perspective. Whereas most of the documentaries, books, articles in the Republic have been cautiously celebratory – careful not to upset the delicate peace that currently exists. This exhibition, with its Big Boot of Empire Black and Tan boot polish, Carson’s Marmalade and pink balaclavas takes a different approach.

 

2016 did see some change of emphasis, most notably in its treatment of women. This year has seen the reintegration of women into the history of the Rising and its aftermath. There is a very famous photograph which shows Pearse officially surrendering to the British. He is viewed from the side, tall in his military uniform and coat. In the original image one can just about make out the legs and feet of a woman stood by his side at this momentous moment. By the time the photograph made it into the papers, the little that could be seen of the nameless woman had been airbrushed out. Almost as though from the start there was a conscious effort to airbrush women out of the story and memory of the Rising. This is something that also marks this art exhibition. In the same year that a woman in Northern Ireland has been prosecuted for illegally purchasing and taking abortion pills the Republic is trying to actively return women to the Rising narrative; though books, documentaries and of course their soap opera drama Rebellion. Here we have another take. The large images of the nurse, barefoot with her hands covered in blood, Kathleen Ni Hooligan bath products and of course Widow Walsh’s sugar coated chocolate pills. This helps to show one thing. That even if you airbrush history, do not teach it in schools or are simply very selective in the information and ideas you use when trying to control and influence the narrative history doesn’t disappear. Ultimately it cannot be avoided. It will always reassert itself.

 

I came to this with a different perspective again. As you have probably noticed by my accent and ignorance of Catholic saints I am British, or more precisely English. I have studied history throughout school, A Levels and then at degree level. Throughout all of these years of study and research I don’t think the word Ireland was ever mentioned. This is especially strange when you consider the number of times I have had to study Elizabeth I, but at all times the national curriculum was careful to avoid any mention of Ireland, empire or colonialism. Having looked into the subject more closely over recent years history teaching in English and Welsh schools seems to remain as politically correct and almost celebratory as possible. The dark, dangerous and dirty side to the creation of modern Britain is studiously avoided.

 

When I tell people at home that I am involved in this exhibition I have to explain what it is and why, for example, there is something called “Laundered Diesel” in an art exhibition. Before I came to Ireland I do not think I had ever heard of the Rising, of Patrick Pearse or knew anything of the 16 Men executed at Kilmainham. It was through art first, films in particular, that I started to learn about this history and it is one of the reasons that I believe exhibitions are so important.

 

Just as the women involved did not simply disappear when they were relegated to the footnotes or history, and the issues surrounding partition did not disappear after the 1921-1922 Treaty was signed. Art is one vital way in which people access and delve into their history. Re-evaluating the things they thought they knew, or perhaps knew nothing of, and reinterpreting their own take on the events that have formed their own society. In general more people are likely to attend and be influenced by an art exhibition than an academic text book and as we continue here in The Souvenir Shop we will continue to see visitors be entertained, challenged and take something away with them.

 

The Souvenir Shop was created by artist Rita Duffy and Curator Helen Carey.

“This is a place of amusement, not a chamber of horrors”: The Battle of the Somme Film (1916)

First Written for Headstuff June 2016

On the 10th of August 1916, a new film premiered in London’s Scala Theatre. This in itself was not unusual. Even during war time, the entertainment industry remained active. What was unusual was that this film marked the first time a recording made in a war zone was shown to the public before the battle in question had come to an end. The Battle of the Somme documentary and propaganda film would prove to be one of the most controversial, shocking and realistic depictions of the war that the British public had ever seen.

By January 1916, conscription had become necessary, and as the war continued, the roll of propaganda became increasingly important to act as a counterpoint to the lists of dead and damaged soldiers returning home from the front.

The war was supposed to have been over by Christmas 1914. As it dragged on, the patriotic fervour that marked the first months receded. By this point there was little left of the marching bands making their way through town and city streets to a chorus of cheers; men standing tall in their bright, and as yet unbloodied, uniforms. The attempt to portray the war as an old fashioned ‘all boys adventure’ had had some early success thanks to peer pressure and propaganda posters. Perhaps the most famous being the Lord Kitchener poster stating boldly: “Your Country Needs You”.

Many of the posters from the early months of the war also attempted to appeal to ideas of masculinity with slogans such as: “Daddy, what did you do in the Great War?” and “Women of Britain Say ‘Go!’”. In Dublin, recruitment officers went house to house with money in their hands to encourage the poor to sign up. However, by January 1916, conscription had become necessary. At first it was for single men, and shortly after for married men aged 18 – 41. As the war continued, the roll of propaganda became increasingly important to act as a counterpoint to the lists of dead and damaged soldiers returning home from the front.

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This year sees the centenary of the Battle of the Somme – the largest battle of the First World War. Its name resonates down the years, symbolising the futility of war; the thousands ordered to walk to their deaths in No Man’s Land. The battle began at dawn on the 1st of July and crawled to its end on the 18th of November. Before the Allies went over the top, there had been a sustained bombardment of German lines intended to destroy the barbed wire and enemy defences, clearing the path for the advance. This attempt failed. The German trenches were barely touched by the shells and the barbed wire remained intact. In the end, all the bombardment had done was to alert the Germans to an oncoming attack, giving them time to prepare. Not expecting any opposition, the order to go over the top was issued. This resulted in one of the bloodiest battles continental Europe had ever seen.

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Although the total number of Irish dead is still uncertain, nearly 2,000 soldiers were killed from Northern Ireland in the first few hours of fighting. At the end of the battle, there were around 420,000 British casualties. (This number includes the Irish dead and injured.) Ultimately, over a million men were killed or wounded. On the first day of the attack alone, there were 5,500 casualties from the 36th Ulster Division who were solely drawn from one community in Ulster. This goes some way to explaining how two civilian cinematographers found themselves and their equipment on the front lines. Filming a battle or war effort was still relatively unusual at this time. The film was created by two commercial cameramen, Geoffrey Malins and John MacDowell, under military supervision. In 1915, the British Government had sold the film rights to the war on the Western Front to a small group of commercial news film companies. The film was not produced by the government or the military but it was approved by them. This has led to some questioning of the bias and trustworthiness of the edited footage.

Filming began in late June and continued to the 10th of July, taking in the brutal first day that saw 19,000 British soldiers die. Malins detailed his experiences in a fascinating book called How I Filmed the War (1919). The book encompasses his Christmas spent on the Front, multiple arrests, being reported dead, attempting to film under heavy shellfire, the difficult trench conditions and a collision with a rather obstructive mule.

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The silent black and white film is overlaid with a piano score as it captures the preparations being made for the upcoming attack. It includes soldiers marching to their positions, images of well-treated German prisoners, men preparing their weapons, religious services and long shots of No Man’s Land. Information panels hint at success when they inform the viewers that “high explosive shells fired by the 12-inch howitzers created havoc in the enemy’s lines”. The film also explicitly tries to tie the viewers back home, involved in the war effort, to the direct effect of their hard work. This can be seen from the information panel stating “along the entire front the munition ‘dumps’ are receiving vast supplies of shells: thanks to the British munitions workers”.

The preparations take up the first 30 minutes of the 75 minute film. After this, the action moves onto the battle itself. One of the earliest images is particularly famous: the soldiers all rushing over the top except for one man who seems to stumble; then the audience realises that he is dead, face down in the mud. Other men struggle to make it through their own barbed wire and some indeed are shot down. There’s footage of men sitting by the side of a road, armed with bayonets and grinning at the camera. A mere 20 minutes after this section was filmed, they came under heavy machine gun fire. The bravery of the soldiers is shown alongside the wounded on stretchers.

It is strange to think that the men who lived, worked and died in the trenches, who would climb over the sandbags into No Man’s Land, would also be requested at some point to act out the process that would shortly leave many of them dead.

At about 55 minutes in, the camera takes in the dead bodies that litter the Somme. It is important to note that some of the footage was staged, including one of the key scenes depicting men going over the top. This was controversial and damaged the filmmakers claims of realism. Also, there is little actual combat footage. It is strange to think that the men who lived, worked and died in the trenches, and who would climb over the sandbags into No Man’s Land, would also be requested at some point to act out the process that would shortly leave many of them dead.

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The film premiered in London on the 10th of August 1916 before its general release on the 21st of August. Why was it shown before victory had been sealed? There is no definite reason for this. It is very possible that this was done to try and counteract the tide of negative information making its way across the channel. However tightly controlled the media had been, they could not stop news of the huge numbers of casualties from making its way home. Presumably, as the authorities had not expected any opposition, they might have hoped that the battle would be swift and victorious.

Within the first six weeks of its general release, The Battle of the Somme had been shown in around 2,000 British cinemas reaching a probable audience of 20 million people (i.e. half the population of Britain). It is one of the most attended films of all time. King George V is reported to have said, “The public should see these pictures that they may have some idea of what the army is doing and what it means”. It seems even by this point there was a general weariness to the bombardment of propaganda and the film may have been designed to try to counteract this. This is reflected in the headline chosen for The Manchester Guardian front page: ‘The Real Thing At Last!’, as the realism shown in the film proved deeply shocking, if not traumatic, for many. Newspapers reported how some fled cinemas screaming at the sight of the dead. One London cinema placed a sign outside stating: ‘We are not showing The Battle of the Somme. This is a place of amusement, not a chamber of horrors’.

Ground breaking during its day, The Battle of the Somme remains as a remarkable work, having gone on to influence generations of documentary filmmakers and journalists. It marked a movement towards a more involved, visual form of war reportage, with journalists and cinematographers risking their lives alongside soldiers in battle in order to capture the events for posterity. The considerable viewership numbers also suggest a thirst to better understand the realities of war from those left behind, and foreshadows the future use and form of mass media propaganda. Even after 100 years, the film is still at times difficult, upsetting and shocking, taking the viewer as close as it is possible to be to the realities of life and war on the Western Front.