Playwright Lizzie Nunnery returns to the Everyman stage with this dramatically spare but emotionally resonant telling of a real-life tragedy.
Playing as part of this year’s Liverpool Irish Festival and on a short UK tour, which also features a date at Ormskirk’s Arts Centre, To Have to Shoot Irishmen shines an uncomfortable light on a single story played out the midst of the maelstrom of the Easter Rising of 1916.
Journalist and republican pacifist Frank Sheehy Skeffington was plucked from the street (where he’d been imploring people to stop looting) and locked up in Dublin’s Portobello Barracks where he and two unionist hacks were later summarily executed on the orders of a rogue officer, Major Bowen-Colthurst.
‘Skeffy’s’ wife Hanna (here played by Elinor Lawless), a radical feminist and suffragette who was friends with the Rising’s leaders including James Connolly, searched the streets in vain for her husband, unaware of his fate.
Nunnery’s trademark play with songs, composed with regular collaborator Vidar Norheim, shifts timeframes and locations from the Sheehy Skeffington’s ransacked home – a barricade-like tumble of furniture and belongings – to street to jail and back.
Frank’s (Gerard Kearns) belief that “there’s no freedom without peace” seems at odds not only with the vicious chaos and confusion unfolding on the streets of Dublin, but also with his wife’s unyielding view of the fight-to-the-death needed to shake off Ireland’s oppressors.
Gerard Kearns (Frank) and Robbie O'Neill (William). Photos by Mike Massaro
The personal narrative unfolds in sinuous and poetic prose, while the bigger picture it sits within is painted by Nunnery/Norheim’s plaintive folk songs and laments, performed with fragile vocal poignancy by the four-strong cast who also beat out a rhythm and create an unsettling dissonant accompaniment on set and musical instruments.
Robbie O’Neill plays William, a troubled young Anglo-Irish recruit who develops an unwilling bond with the man he’s tasked to guard but whom, ultimately, he fails to protect, while Russell Richardson is Sir Francis Vane, the Dublin-born British army officer nominally in charge of the barracks who comes to seek absolution for a crime committed on his watch.
This small personal tragedy, thoughtfully and beautifully rendered by Nunnery, director Gemma Kerr and the cast, is microcosm of a city and a country’s much larger one.
Incidentally, Vane was rewarded for his dogged pursuit of justice by being relieved of his post. And a later court martial found Bowen-Colthurst guilty of the unlawful killings “but insane” and he spent the rest of the war in Broadmoor before being released in 1918.