There is a real debate to be had in examining the impact that theatre can have. Can it indeed have a truly revolutionary effect? This play from Neil Weathereall uses the history of Ireland in the early 20th century to examine whether art can impact the world with as much force as violence.
We begin backstage in 1902 at the premiere of a theatrical performance. Playwright W B Yeats and Lady Gregory await the reception of a responsive audience before being interrupted by Patrick Pearse, an aspiring writer keen to share his own work with a writer he greatly admires. Throughout the roughly hour-long piece, we jump forward in time through important moments of both Irish governmental and literary history, each framed within the premiere of a new performance. The encounters of the three will show the debates of the time , linking them in turn to the questions we may ask ourselves about the best way to produce change in our society.
There is an interesting and unique idea to Weatherall’s work that has much dramatic potential. The main conflicts come from the opposing views from Yeats and Pearse on the best way to win self-governance. The first believes in the practical application of negotiation, while Pearse is enchanted with a boldness as a younger man, leading to his participation in later events such as the Easter Rising. It is a shame then that portions of dialogue are painted as merely displaying those opinions and debates for the audience without seeking to engage much in the way of character or plot. It struggles to link the personal lives of the characters with the wider political events surrounding them, leading to an ambitious timeline of a plot that ultimately feels unsatisfying.
Generally, the cast are suited to their roles but struggle to invigorate their characters with real intrigue. Characterisations are fairly flat, and issues arrive when you consider that not much fundamentally changes about those on stage, and so how they are presented at the start of the play remains rather constant throughout. Cath Humphrys is able to lend some moments of sparkle to Gregory’s long aspiring actress. Loclann O’Grady brings a weathered quality to Yeats that works with some of the wittier lines but grows draining over a sustained period, while Justin McKenna’s Pearse struggles with the same inflexibility.
Overall as a fringe show, there is much to admire in the way of ambition of Weatherall’s piece (which he also directs), but much to desire for in the way of execution. A production design using plastic axes and buckets combined with a PowerPoint presentation prove distracting rather than illuminating, and some flat blocking doesn’t manage to uncover any real drama. With some real development and perhaps an outside eye, there is potential in a play that fails to inspire to the same degree as the events that inspired its creation.
The Passion of the Playboy Riots is played at The Hen and Chickens Theatre until 08/07/17. For more information, see www.unrestrictedview.co.uk/venue.