To Have To Shoot Irishmen opens the Irish Theatre Season at the Omnibus Theatre, Clapham. It’s a spellbindingly bleak seventy minutes or so, but there is a historical inevitability about that when telling the story of (Frank) Francis Sheehy-Skeffington. It’s a name almost lost amongst the many lives taken in the turbulence of Irish history, but it is resurrected in this worthy tribute by playwright Lizzie Nunnery who collaborated with Vidar Norheim on the songs.
Moving, interesting and with some haunting moments.
It’s Easter Sunday morning. Civil war, independence and partition are still some years away but the painful journey has begun on the streets of Dublin where gunshots ring out and do more than merely damage the Post Office. The British still rule and Irishmen are to be found in their regiments across continental Europe fighting for king, country and the global empire. Ironically those are the very things that many back in Ireland are beginning the fight to destroy. As the sides become entrenched families are divided, feuds are born and armies become disoriented.
To Have To Shoot Irishmen is a microcosm of the mayhem that would run into the next century. Frank (Gerard Kearns) is from the north and walks the streets pleading for peace, while his wife Hanna (Elinor Lawless) is embroiled in the offensive against English occupation and the fight for women’s suffrage. She encounters the archetypal British officer, Sir Francis Fletcher-Vane (Russell Richardson) whose very name resonates with the sound of English supremacy. He has seen the horrors of trench warfare and now has to explain in bumbling platitudes the shortcomings of fellow soldiers. Meanwhile, Frank, in an earlier prison time frame engages the rookie lieutenant, William (Robbie O’Neill), who is overwhelmed by the obligation to duty that has been drilled into him and which he has to reconcile with his humanity and inexperience.
A mournful song opens the play and intersperse the scenes, giving expression to the long musical tradition and unmistakable sounds associated with the island, used as a vehicle for relating history and emotion. Rachael Rooney’s demolished house works well to accommodate the scenes and enhance the atmosphere of physical and personal destruction. Lawless stands up to the latter in a performance that captures pioneering determination and deep sorrow. Kearns battles in his own way, eloquently delivering his argument and his vision and the difficulty of being in the middle of entrenched sides. O’Neill’s youthfulness serves him well and in particular he delivers a fine monologue of answers to unspoken questions in the courtroom scene. To look at him is to see the tragedy of youth thrown into war and situations way beyond their years. Many years older, Richardson portrays a noble character who has devoted his life to military service and traditional values. Now, as he faces an act or appalling irresponsibility committed by a fellow officer, following which he tries to do the right thing, his life seems to have fallen down around him as much as the building’s themselves.
To Have To Shoot Irishmen as directed by Gemma Kear is a studied piece; moving, interesting and with some haunting moments. The soulfulness is almost unrelenting, however, with a melancholy pace and unwavering solemnity that comes over as somewhat monotone. With only four characters there would be room in an expanded version of the play for others with livelier contributions who could at times relieve the current pervasive intensity.