The Personal Becomes Political
On stage at least, Stephen Jones has played some hugely personable characters in recent times. From Maz and Bricks, This Lime Tree Bower, or his self-penned, hugely impressive From Eden, you'd be hard pressed to find more likeable lads gracing the stage. It’s a characteristic that proves to be the saving grace of Awake and Sing’s production, “100 More Like These,” a piece of revisionist history that centres around the Mexican-American War between 1846-1848, and the San Patricio Battalion, a group of predominantly Irish immigrants who deserted the US Army to fight for Mexico. Indeed, had Jones been your history teacher you would never have missed a class, and this would certainly have been one of his best. Yet as a piece of storytelling theatre “100 More Like These,” has its fair share of issues, not least of which is its sitting uneasily close to feeling like an extremely well-presented history lecture. A lecture which shifts uneasily between the personal and historical, the political and patriotic, almost undoing all its good work near the end with overtones that sound remarkably close to nationalist propaganda.
If you understand propaganda as dealing in easy generalities such as them and us, where we’re always the goodies and they’re always the baddies, “100 More Like These” risks being reductive in this manner. The baddies in question being the barbaric Americans who have no saving graces, whether in Boston, Texas, or Mexico, taking land that isn’t theirs, hanging legless men or torturing heroes and peasants. Luckily Larry O’Loughlin’s script, adapted and performed by Jones, tempers this tendency just enough, contrasting the able leadership of the Americans with the self-serving and inept leadership of the Mexicans in the form of General Santa Anna, he who said, “with a hundred more of these men of Riley’s we could have won this war.” The Riley in question being Irishman John Riley, his men the San Patricio’s, men who willingly followed him into glorious failure. Defeated during what equates to a Mexican Alamo, it's a defeat, like Easter 1916, where failure gives way to eternal glory as history looks back and reclaims the forgotten.
The central difficulty with “100 More Like These” is O’Loughlin’s ambitious but problematic script. Indeed, the story of twelve-year-old Thomas O’Byrne, the central figure around which events take place, takes a considerable amount of time before it ever gets to Mexico. Travelling by way of a Gangs Of New York styled trip around 1840’s Boston, O’Byrne’s tale is reminiscent of Huckleberry Finn in ways, with the young O’Byrne’s less interesting Huck being a sort of little moved mover caught up in the centre of an overwhelming universe that’s happening all around his childlike self. A universe in which he is often overshadowed by an array of much more interesting, secondary characters. When Thomas finally finds himself caught up in war, it’s less bullets that prove to be a danger so much as statistics. Seeming to want to marry a sense of the epic with the personal, in true Homeric fashion, “100 More Like These,” almost gets there at times, but too often it lets facts get in the way of a good story. Dates, times, statistics and details multiply exponentially as “100 More Like These” becomes a journalistic report filed by a military strategist, with not enough of the storyteller’s sense of the blood and thunder of battle. The end, when it comes, might have you carousing for Ireland, but it’s more likely because it’s playing you like the chords of rebel song and not necessarily because of the story it told.
In the hands of a less versatile performer, “100 More Like These” could prove to be something of an endurance test. Thankfully Stephen Jones has more than enough in his artistic arsenal to turn what could potentially have been a stultifying lecture into something extremely enjoyable at times. Displaying wonderful vocal versatility across a range of accents, Jones’s booming voice breathes life into mere snatches of character, filling out the universe of “100 More Like These” with an engaging charm. Conrad Jones-Brangan’s sound design and Andrew Murray’s lighting design carefully add subtlety and texture throughout. Even so, the whole often feels academic and the story loses out. Yet there are moments when sound, light, text and performance converge to craft something almost memorable.
Like Braveheart’s speech, a rebel song, or a rallying cry to arms, “100 More Like These,” will certainly get certain people to their feet on the strength of its nationalistic, patriotic sentiment. As a piece of theatre, the independent observer might be less than blown away in places. Even if Jones’s performance, which shows both strength and commitment, is often a pleasure to watch, the script isn’t all it might have been. Indeed, from documentaries, to films, to Chieftain’s albums, the tale of The San Patricio’s is not as unfamiliar as it once was. It’s a tale that needs a new telling. With a little more Homer-meets-Huck, and a little less politics and patriotism, “100 More Like These” could well be that tale, igniting that genuine fire in the belly it so eagerly strives for.
“100 More Like These” by Larry O’Loughlin, adapted and performed by Stephen Jones, presented by Awake and Sing, runs at The Viking Theatre until July 15th
For more information, visit The Viking Theatre