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  • Chris O'Rourke

Staging The Treaty

Staging The Treaty. Image uncredited

With ANU, art is never fast food for mass consumption. Rather, it’s a five star Michelin meal striving towards a transformative experience. Intimate and immersive, it explores hidden histories that inform the present. Like their site-specific, immersive Staging The Treaty. Theatrical fine dining, even as it serves up mammoth portion sizes, thirteen plus hours of theatre are spread over four separate performances, one a day for four different days. Each performance exploring a different aspect of the treaty negotiations from 1922 when Irish independence from Britain was ratified for twenty-six of its thirty-two counties. Leading to an ugly Civil War defined by reprehensible acts as comrades in arms became sworn enemies. Director Louise Lowe, a revisionist historian trapped in a theatre makers body, alongside poet Theo Dorgan, recreating a pivotal event that continues to define us.

Staging The Treaty. Image Ros Kavanagh

Re-staging the debates where they original took place, the room now part of The National Concert Hall, Lowe finds a kindred intensity in Dorgan’s abridged script. Curated from verbatim records, many only recently available, Dorgan’s three year labour of love is a devil of recorded details and nothing else. Standing in historic corridors peopled by living ghosts, the first instalment finds the audience escorted into a private Dáil session; the line between audience and cast intentionally blurred. Immediately, cultural and historical certainties begin to buckle. Had the negotiators a clear mandate to sign a treaty? Was war inevitable if we didn’t sign? Were the Plenipotentiaries blindsided and manipulated by Lloyd George and de Valera? Were women, many fiercely opposed to anything short of a Republic, reading the patriarchal writing on the Catholic wall and sensing promises would soon be broken?

Staging The Treaty. Image uncredited

As argument follows argument in a circular dance, complexities and nuance paint the founding fathers in less than glorious colours. Hell arising from their noble intentions, tempered by showboating and grandstanding, by pettiness, threats and jealousies, by personal attacks and nation sized egos. Steeped in mean-spirited self-righteousness, or calculated craftiness, many invoke the dead to damn the living as Kamikaze politics prepare to plunge the country into war, always in the name of avoiding war. Regular eruptions of cheering and applause infecting you with the heat of debate. Prompting you to want to join in. Occasionally surprising yourself as to who, or what, you’re rooting for; prejudice cracking under the weight of having to hear the other side out. An imaginative pullback required to remind you where you’re supposed to be. Hindsight’s historic rear view obscuring that, for those in the room, their decision involved a life and death leap of faith into the then unknown.

Staging The Treaty. Image Ros Kavanagh

While Dorgan’s script is remarkable in integrity and curation, Lowe’s fingerprints are all over it in terms of shape, pace and rhythm. Ensuring that even as the outcome is a given, tension is still palpable. Notes constantly being passed, people constantly moving, exasperated and frightened looks informing shifting and shifty expressions. No-one is passive. No one sits still. The cast stupendous, an ensemble whose cohesion World Cup managers would give their right arm to have. Design, (re)created by Owen Boss, overflows with period touches, bringing the room back to its former style. Boss’s fanaticism for detail reflected in Maree Kearns's costumes, right down to Fáinne Óir pins for Irish language speakers.

Staging The Treaty. Image uncredited

There’s much to be learnt from Staging The Treaty. Not least that, fundamentally, history seems to be repeating itself as notions of Irish identity undergo change. Yet as we crawl free of the utopian dreams of geriatric white men, romantic Ireland is far from dead and gone. She’s simply being reimagined. Her polished raindrops, along with her shining dead, reframing our national identity. Programmes like The Epic West offering a gentrified and sanitised Tourist Board image that could have been designed by Disney. Politically, even as the opposing parties in the debate now share the responsibilities of government, their shambolic handling of transport, housing, homelessness, hospitals, the shame of vulture funds, the Iveagh Gardens, add your own, see many disillusioned with Irish politics. That sense of hope, so passionately alive during the Treaty debates, now looking like a cynical ghost haunting the corridors of power.

Staging The Treaty. Image Ros Kavanagh

To paraphrase a wise man: the past is what happened, history is what we’re told, and what we tell ourselves, about what happened. With Staging The Treaty Dorgan and Lowe strive to recreate the purity of what happened in order to reassess it now that sufficient distance exists from the events. True, it’s long and could have benefitted from even more judicious pruning. If it plays like Mr Smith Goes to Washington meets Twelve Angry Men at times, with shades of Brooks’ durational Mahabharata, you can’t shake the sense of theatre approaching a unique authenticity. Due, in no small measure, to the embarrassment of riches that is its sterling cast. On the evidence of its first instalment, Staging The Treaty is a remarkable and extraordinary achievement. If you’re lucky enough to get a ticket, go see it. Lowe and Dorgan have crafted something special.

Staging The Treaty, script by Theo Dorgan, directed by Louise Lowe, presented by ANU in association with The National Concert Hall, runs at The National Concert Hall on the following dates:

THE MAELSTROM - 14th December 7pm

THE TITANS - 15th December 7pm

THE PURGE - 17th December 7pm

THE BALLOT - 18th December 7pm

For more information, visit ANU Productions


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