I’m not sure what I was expecting going into I am of Ireland, but when it opened as a cross-dressing musical I was pleasantly surprised. Unfortunately, it didn’t continue in that mode. Seamus Finnegan’s state of the nation play is directed by his long-term colleague Ken McClymont and is on stage the Old Red Lion Theatre.
The premise of the play is a little confusing and takes a while to become clear. It’s an anthology play that tells the story of Ireland’s ongoing relationship with violence and how violence is intersected with race, migration and faith. It has both everything and nothing to do with The Troubles, as it looks at changing intolerances in an already divided land.
Unsurprisingly, faith is discussed at length. Can former IRA terrorist Dominic (Euan Macnaughton) repent through penance if the amnesty means he can’t achieve legal justice? Can Theresa (Shenagh Govan) come to terms with her daughter Mary (Saria Steel) joining a convent when the Catholic Church has changed beyond recognition? Faith is intersected with racism when Barry (Angus Castle-Doughty) couldn’t care less about whether the man he attacked was a catholic priest (Jerome Ngonadi) — all that mattered was that he was black. Equally Ngonadi’s compelling performance as Father Flannigan sees him try to comprehend his place in Ireland today when his ancestors’ past was dictated by Irish slave owners.
Throughout the play, two old friends reunited at a funeral, Harry (Richard Fish) and Sean (Sean Stewart), clash over Irish diaspora. Harry refuses to believe that there’s any reason to leave Ireland and can’t understand Sean, who has found a home in London. Sean’s guilt over leaving Ireland is conflicted with trying to fathom any reason why he would return to a country that he sees as intolerant, divided and empty of living relatives. The play deals with big, important and serious issues but the awkward script and stiff staging sometimes makes the conversations hard to believe, as these genuinely complicated issues are somewhat overdramatised.
The wonderful thing about theatre is that there are so many different ways to tell a story. On many occasions I am of Ireland does this, it gets creative with its set design and music choice, but then it seems to forget this and ends up with Macnaughton standing and talking at length. While Macnaughton is entertaining and there is a lot of context to be communicated in these scenes, they can’t help but make you feel like you’re in a lecture theatre.
In the end, I am of Ireland deals with the incomprehensible idea that Ireland can’t stand the peace and that some people long for the “good old days” of unrest. It’s an alternative history that seeks to remind us of Ireland’s forgotten and ironic history, perhaps as a warning, but certainly not as an especially entertaining piece of theatre.
I am of Ireland is playing the Old Red Lion Theatre until 30 June 2018
Photo: Michael Robinson