Rage to Stage
Did you hear about Hairy Jaysus? Otherwise known as Frank the Crank? Also known as Frank Sheehy Skeffington, or Skeffy? A close friend of James Joyce who was executed by the British in 1916 for trying to put up No Looting posters in the middle of the Rising? If you answered no, you’re not alone. If Donal O’Kelly’s one man play, "Hairy Jaysus" tries to reclaim Sheehy Skeffington as some sort of symbol for a revisionist Ireland, it's unlikely to win too many converts for his canonisation. For Sheehy Skeffington might have been unfairly dismissed as a political buffoon, but Exit Does Theatre’s production suggests this may have more to do with his disgruntled personality than his principled idealism.
Having the indignant tenacity of a belligerent wasp, in many respects Sheehy Skeffington should be the poster boy for a revisionist Ireland. He ticks all the isms. Feminism, socialism, atheism, pacifism: the last seeing him fall foul of the Irish rebels who saw the path to victory in 1916 as a necessarily violent one. His No Looting response suggesting a political hissy fit because no one told him there was going to be an Easter party where guns were invited. Which his eternally patient wife attended, hanging out with the bold boys and hurting his feelings. Indeed, prior to his fatal incarceration, the only wound Sheehy Skeffington seems to have suffered was to his pride. Along with a couple of rough nights in Mountjoy on hunger strike for sedition, which look about as detrimental to his health as a weekend retreat with Weight Watchers.
Even Joyce affectionately lampooned him in Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man, and O’Kelly’s selective frame does little to undo the prejudice. If O’Kelly’s writing has some wonderful flourishes, with some terrific word play and a clever use of religious symbolism, too often it sounds like an embittered tirade by a soap box trade unionist in a tone that could drill for oil. One whose jargon heavy rhetoric sees Sheehy Skeffington pontificating not so much for the left as for the left behind; most notably himself. Some smart insights by an erudite and educated beggar with a time travel sleeping bag decrying Ireland’s response to the banking crisis has some contemporary resonance. But it, too, disappears into its romanticised rhetoric. For in “Hairy Jaysus” romantic Ireland isn’t dead and gone. It’s just wearing a different outfit.
What keeps you involved well past the point of sanctimoniousness is an invested performance by Paddy McEneaney playing Sheehy Skeffington and a cast of thousands. If Dee Armstrong’s direction sets a machine gun pace which can occasionally result in characters blurring, McEneaney does enough to reveal nuances that might slip by, employing a host of accents, suggesting there’s a lot more in the tank than indignation. While Armstrong’s fast track direction could use a little of McEneaney's subtlety, Armstrong's sound design proves captivating, adding some much needed texture.
In under an hour, you were never going to cover everything about Sheehy Skeffington, especially the subsequent trial following his death. Yet it’s impossible to escape the feeling that now, just as then, Sheehy Skeffington is being pressed into the service of someone else's agenda, with something vital slipping through the cracks. He may profess he’s a crank in the wheels of revolution, but it sounds like sour grapes when even his sugar tastes like vinegar. Leaving you puzzled as to why Connolly cried when he heard of his death. Yet Exit Does Theatre’s production might inadvertently capture why. Having the neck to present a one man show in a dingy room to share something you believe in when others might not quite see it, or even know who you are: the defiant spirit of Sheehy Skeffington looms large. And there’s something quite impressive about that.
"Hairy Jaysus" by Donal O’Kelly, presented by Exit Does Theatre in association with The Glens Centre, runs at the International Bar till Feb 29, and again March 11-14 at 6.pm.