The Fall of the Second Republic
Death by a Thousand Cuts
Churchill, misquoting George Santayana, claimed that those who fail to learn from history are condemned to repeat it. Corn Exchange’s political comedy “The Fall of the Second Republic,” created by Michael West and Annie Ryan, would appear to second that motion. Poking fun at the bully boy, back hander politics of the 1970s, its jokes are razor edged and very clearly aimed at today. Where if the wallpaper in the Dáil bar has changed over the years, politicians still seem to be singing the same old songs. Despite everyone knowing of their less than impressive history.
Dark deeds with dodgy developers, a self-serving government failing its electorate, a scared and ineffective media, and sworn political enemies trying to form a government: is this “The Fall of the Second Republic’s” reimagined 1973, or Ireland in 2020 you might well ask? If West’s script wickedly parodies parsimonious politicians, it also parodies screwball comedies, investigative newspaper movies, Ireland in the 1970s, and much more in between. Too much perhaps, with too many references spoiling the theatrical broth. Like Father Ted meeting Network, it's an unstable marriage, resembling Halls Pictorial Weekly during its best moments: its satires and parodies proving irresistibly funny and revealing.
If its clever opening speaks to a heightened theatricality, its a terrific exception to a far less interesting rule. With Katie Davenport’s disappointing set looking like a functioning nonentity suffering from bad Feng Shui. Minimally evoking a newspaper office, the Taoiseach’s office and a few places in between, the cinematic aesthetic might have sounded well on the page but looks dull on stage. In fairness to Davenport, West’s script plays more like a screenplay or a teleplay, looking like The Mary Tyler Moore Show awkwardly fitted to the stage. Giving Davenport a range to climb never mind a mountain, with “The Fall of the Second Republic” structured as a plethora of competing scenes awkwardly strung together. Some of which work incredibly well. Some not so well. Some padding the space between scenes that work well. The whole getting lost in its parts.
Under Ryan’s direction, caricature more than character often define who’s who, and everything’s made viciously delightful because of it, with most of Ryan’s hard working ensemble playing a number of roles. Caitríona Ennis’ dauntless Emer Hackett might be a reporter trying to set the worlds to rights, but she also has to contend with being an unmarried woman with a baby on the way, with a misogynistic employer, and a lover that leaves you scratching your head. Investigating a listed theatre that’s threatened with demolition in order to build an Irish Business Centre (no prizes for spotting the metaphor), Ennis’ feisty fireball looks far more interesting when she’s kicking down doors rather than pleading her case for a place at the table. But it’s an uphill struggle, with Ennis facing a thankless job on more than one front. Including trying to get us to regard as serious the laughable shenanigans that are being played for laughs. Which see her ultimately reduced to a Kathleen Ni Houlihan yearning for a better Ireland to come.
Screwball romances, even political ones, thrive on the cut and thrust between equal protagonists: Rosalind Russell and Cary Grant, Hepburn and Tracey, Lois Lane and Clark Kent. Yet Hackett’s lover doesn't cut it; John Doran’s damp squib, Finbar Lowe, making for too big an ask, having neither the character nor chemistry to be an equal of interest, especially a love interest. Lowe might heighten the gender inequality resulting from misogyny, but that point has already been better made, with the independent Hackett looking like she’s picking on a child when sparring with her weak willed colleague. In fairness to Doran, he’s given precious little to work with; a device just to set up Hackett with another problem or her next speech. Far more successful is Doran’s Des Lackin T.D., a high strung, high pitched, hen pecked nepotist aspiring to the position of Taoiseach.
Indeed, it’s the politicians who steal the show. None more so than a superb Andrew Bennett as Taoiseach Manny Spillane, looking as if a self-serving Frankenstein made from Gareth Fitzgerald, Charlie Haughey, with a drop or two of Trump had been concocted in the basement of Leinster House. Bennett is simply brilliant, stalking every scene he’s in and stealing it. Getting some stiff competition from a superb Declan Conlon as Billy Kinlan T.D., a drunk with a penchant for boys in the Phoenix Park. Anna Healy as the unacknowledged great woman behind the greatly deluded man is terrific for being permanently understated. Indeed, performances from Niamh McCann, Camille Lucy Ross and Eddie Murphy are each superb, with Patrick Ryan being something of a comic whirlwind as a roughshod TD and an obstreperous editor.
Like a boxing match where opponents circle endlessly, landing too few blows, the longer “The Fall of the Second Republic” goes on the more its impact drains as it searches for a knockout punch. But it ends with a split decision. Yet the laughs and punches that land along the way give much to enjoy. And much to think about. For Corn Exchange have a number of bones to pick. And who can blame them. In 2020 the arts, like housing, health, and the homeless, are normalising need. Where survival is deemed a measure of success, making it the best most artists can hope for. Getting through and making do, hanging in there, keeping your head above water being the mantras of the day. Except, in each instance where funding suffers death by a thousand cuts, and the issue is put on the progressively longer finger, the result is unnecessary and preventable deaths.
Now Corn Exchange’s funding has been completely cut. Twenty-five years enriching Irish theatre with productions like Dublin by Lamplight, A Girl is a Half Formed Thing, Man of Valour to name but a few, Corn Exchange set standards others still aspire to. Even if you mightn't be always won over by the theatre they make, you are always grateful they are making theatre. For their productions take risks and are executed to the highest theatrical standards. And when they strike gold there is no-one else like them. In the global context, conspiracy theorists will wonder at the ominous silencing of artists through cuts in funding in many democracies. Maybe we should learn from history what happens when that’s allowed to happen. Michael West has written some remarkable works. Annie Ryan is one of the most generous, challenging, and brilliant directors we have.
Let’s hope Corn Exchange hang in there.
And there’s that mantra again.
“The Fall of the Second Republic,” created by Michael West and Annie Ryan, in a Corn Exchange and Abbey Theatre co-production, runs at The Abbey Theatre until March 14.