A Measure of Our Dreams
There was a feeling of the old time, traveling theatre company rolling into town as the Abbey Theatre rolled into Carrick-on-Shannon for the world premiere of “Jimmy’s Hall” last week. Adapted and directed for the stage by The Abbey’s co-artistic director, Graham McLaren, from the film Jimmy’s Hall, directed by Ken Loach with a screenplay by Paul Laverty, the tale of Jimmy Gralton, the only Irishman ever deported from his own country, premiered only a few miles from where the events depicted took place. Something the rousing home crowd enjoyed immensely, as the local Leitrim legend again gave voice to the hopes and fears of a new generation.
Set between 1932 and 1933 on a farm in Effrinagh, a few miles outside Carrick-on-Shannon, “Jimmy’s Hall” sees James Gralton returning to Ireland from America to take care of his aging mother and the family farm. Holding strong Communist leanings, Gralton has as many enemies as friends enjoying new found freedom in DeValera’s emerging, Irish Free State. Yet very little is free it seems, as old English masters give way to new Catholic pastors determined to regulate what people say or do, and how they think, feel, dress, or dance. Finding himself exiled at home, a foreigner in his own country, Jimmy concedes to the request of the community and reopens the Pearse-Connolly Hall he built on his family’s land years previous. A local community hall run by, and for, the community, where people meet, socialise, learn, and work together following Communist principles. Something the Church, and others in favour of a Catholic Ireland, are not prepared to tolerate. For Jimmy is doing the devil’s work, and the devil has all the best songs and dance moves, guaranteed to lure the innocent into temptation. In the end, reopening the hall proves to be something of a pyrrhic victory, the cost of which sees Gralton unjustly deported because of his American passport. Yet if Gralton’s tale ends there, his story goes on. For though the battle might have been lost, another of Ireland’s glorious failures has once again become a beacon of hope in the ongoing war against social injustice.
While remaining faithful to the original screenplay, McLaren introduces some theatrical twists and thoughtful turns of his own. The most obvious of which is the foregrounding of music to an even greater extent than the film. Following Room, “Jimmy’s Hall” sees yet another Abbey adaptation from screen to stage slip easily into play-with-music and musical theatre territory. With an opening looking like it was borrowed from Once, the cast sing and dance on stage preshow to a heavily influenced 1980’s soundtrack, wonderfully capturing the sense of exuberance and tight knit community the authorities want to crush. A soundtrack out of kilter with the time it represents, it’s one that resonates with a living generation, many of whom had to immigrate, or have had family and friends who immigrated, and who are now fearful their own children might once again have to do the same. Musical interludes might often be sentimentalised, but they can, along with moments of direct address, often reinforce a Brechtian reflective distance, asking the audience to look squarely at the issues being presented to them. Inequality for women, evictions and homelessness, the robbed future of a young generation with little or no hope of getting on the property ladder, are just some of contemporary relevance being brought to the forefront.
While Laverty’s script compensated for overt political debate with rich humour and characterisations, making it extremely accessible even for those of a non-political nature, McLaren’s adaptation is less successful in this regard. Too often characters lose much of their complexity and feel like mouthpieces for a position. Where Jim Norton and Andrew Scott’s Catholic priests in the original film were impassioned men driven by a blind integrity, here priests have become uncomplicated villains. Indeed, a Brechtian sensibility comes to dominate as “Jimmy’s Hall” often sacrifices character in the service of short history lesson, a political debate or a party-political broadcast. Something some will see as a damning metaphor for Communism, as well as Catholicism. Theatrically, it can make the whole feel clunky, as transition between play, music, and direct address are not always smooth, causing “Jimmy’s Hall” to fall uneasily at times between feeling like a lengthy trade union tirade and one hell of a hooley.
McLaren goes a long way to addressing this with some stellar casting. Catherine Bell, Craig Connolly, Muiris Crowley, Aindrais De Staic, Alan Devally, Sarah Madigan, Ruth McGill, Diarmaid Murtagh and Bríd Ní Neachtain perform brilliantly as a tight ensemble, whose dance, music and movement sequences are often a sheer joy. Bosco Hogan as Fr Sheridan and Richard Clements as Jimmy, the duelling consciences at the centre of it all, both turn in solid performances. A veteran of the original movie, Donal O’Kelly as O’Keefe is stunningly good during a venom filled conversation with Jimmy which gets to the core of the play with an economy not always found elsewhere. Indeed, the sight of O’Kelly belting out Whitney Houston’s I Want to Dance with Somebody as part of the ensemble is one of this shows particular highlights. Throughout, Lisa Lambe is electric as the wild hearted, red head Oona, the conflicted lover with the voice of an angel, singing and dancing to find release. If her Lakes of Pontchartrain is something of a peculiar choice, looking like a song more suitable to Jimmy, Lambe still infuses the moment with an irresistible quality, as does Ruth McGill during her own mesmerising solo. Set and costume design by Colin Richmond are both clever and stunning, complimented by a lighting design by Sarah Jane Shiels and sound design by Ben Delaney.
“Jimmy’s Hall” might try a little too hard in places, but Irish history can be a complicated mess, especially when you throw in religion and politics. Consequently, McLaren’s “Jimmy’s Hall” was bound to be something of a mess. But it's a good mess for the most part. Its uneasy juxtaposition of vigorous, political and religious reasoning played against a sentimentalised soundtrack set to strum your heart strings won’t strike a chord with everyone. Some will find it just a little bit twee, a little like a propaganda rally, or a little bit Irish as the saying goes. Indeed, it may well be all that, but "Jimmy's Hall" is also an exhilarating theatrical experience. Showing less of an edge than The Threepenny Opera or Rent in addressing social inequality, “Jimmy’s Hall” can feel more like The Quiet Man meets Footloose on occasion. But that just makes it a guilty pleasure for the summer season that packs quite the political punch.
That said, there’s a sense with “Jimmy’s Hall” that McLaren is trying to get the measure of our dreams. Dreams once dreamt, and dreams now being dreamt. Dreams fulfilled, and dreams unfinished. In “Jimmy’s Hall” dreams often eclipse the dreamers, who, while honoured in principle, can play second fiddle to the cause, the message or the injustice. Yet it still threads carefully where the future is concerned. For ultimately “Jimmy’s Hall” is about resistance, persistence and hope, and its theatrical, big finish might well have you on your feet as it dares you to dream of even better days to come.
“Jimmy’s Hall,” adapted and directed by Graham McLaren from a film script by Paul Laverty, premiered at The Carrick-on-Shannon Community Hall on July 22nd in advance of its run at the Abbey Theatre from July 28th till August 19th.
For more information, visit The Abbey Theatre