• Chris O'Rourke

Dublin Theatre Festival 2020: Embargo


Callan Cummins, Matthew Malone and Mary Murray in Fishambles EMBARGO. Photo by Anthony Wood


Politically Personal


It's a case of covering familiar ground for both Fishamble: The New Play Company, and playwright Deirdre Kinahan, as the politics of the past get reframed in the present in Embargo. Like their brilliant Inside the GPO, Fishamble again set out to interrogate a place and time in Irish history. That place being Connolly Station, via a significant detour to Kells and the Pump House in Dublin Port. The time being the oft forgotten arms embargo during the War of Independence, when Irish workers refused to transport British guns or soldiers.


Like sitting on a stalled train waiting for breakdown services, nothing much happens in Embargo after initially leaving the station. At which time it ventures retrospectively back upon itself to begin explaining a brutal tar and feathering and why a woman desperately needs to get to Belfast. Come the half way mark and the character driven narrative, by far the best thing about Kinahan's politically charged script, has barely moved forward, with the tracks ahead blocked by a truck load of revisionist history. Even so, it's already clear where the story's going, whose slim pickings are rationed out like grains until its powerful ending nears. Which, even if you don't quite buy it, still leaves you very much enthralled.

Callan Cummins, Matthew Malone and Mary Murray in Fishambles EMBARGO. Photo by Anthony Wood


In a vein similar to The Unmanageable Sisters, Kinahan once again addresses the past to highlight how the Irish Republic broke its promise to its women. Showing a Joycean leaning towards the epic in the everyday, Embargo's occassionally pompous tone strains under its Greek references. Structurally, echoes of a Greek chorus are peppered about, with the cast adding forced emphasis to words and lines in places. Throughout, Kinahan's overwrought language self-consciously strives for seriousness, heavily invested with trade union and nationalist rhetoric. Supported by a droning score by Denis Clohessy, which also seems to be seeking gravitas.


Director Maisie Lee struggles valiantly to bridge the distance between script and screen, culminating in a clever final image helped by Zia Bergin-Holly's intriguing set and impressive light design. Yet performances are disparate throughout, with the whole struggling to stay on its feet. Like a graduate from the Ron Burgundy school of journalism, the sensitive Gracie sees Matthew Malone monologuing meaningfully to camera when not executing dialogue, his dialogue proving far more effective. Meanwhile, Mary Murray's prop-less Jane is cranked up to such a degree she seems to have strayed in from another play. Even so, Murray is value for money, knowing how to work a camera and an audience. Callan Cummin's laconic Jack convinces as a wannabe Jim Larkin type, rehashing trade union and nationalist rhetoric of the 1920s, but with none of the great orator's power, and very little of his compassion.

Callan Cummins and Matthew Malone in Fishambles EMBARGO. Photo by Anthony Wood


Advocating the personal over the political, Embargo's personalities serve as political mouthpieces in this strong, if slow trundling story. Feeling like Strumpet City:The Sequel, and offering up tidbits of revisionist history, you could be forgiven for thinking rage might have been a more suitable title seeing how often it gets talked about. Throughout, there is a genuine attempt to transfer a theatrical work online in as innovative a manner as possible. Ensuring that if Embargo highlights the hurt inflicted on women during the War of Independence, and on many of the Republic's more sensitive souls, it also highlights the strains impinging on the artifice that is theatre online.

Embargo by Deirdre Kinahan, produced by Fishamble:The New Play Company, was commissioned by Dublin Port Company and Iarnród Éireann as part of Dublin Theatre Festival. Originally live streamed from Connolly Station and the Pump House, Dublin Port, Embargo is available online until October 25.


For more in formation, visit Fishamble:The New Play Company


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© 2020 Chris O'Rourke