In the world of today’s fringe theatre, people seem to constantly be straining to push the boundaries. Whether it be a conscious attempt to shock, a desire to challenge the audience’s preconceptions, unexpected technical effects or simply the thrill of trying something completely new, fringe theatre is nothing if not ambitious. Well there’s ambitious…and then there’s The Non-Stop Connolly Show. Dauntingly subtitled “A Dramatic Cycle Of Continuous Struggle In Six Parts”, the staggered run will culminate in two days of continuous performance, leading us to wonder if the aforementioned struggle refers to Connolly himself or to the courageous actors.
This early in, they still appear relatively bright eyed and bushy tailed. And they need to be, as both subject and style are challenging. The play, written by those tireless champions of the Irish Way Margaretta D’Arcy and John Arden, details the life and times of James Connolly, famous for his part in the Easter Uprisings. You may have thought that there would be sufficient material to draw on during that period of terrible strife to make a poignant, important play on its own, but the pair decided that this was not enough. What they wanted was to portray the entire life of James Connolly, on stage, from start to finish. The result is a 24 hour epic, not something for the faint-hearted spectator – or actor.
When the play was first performed, in 1975, it was by all accounts a lavish spectacle, somewhat like a mummer’s play. The costumes were flamboyant, and many of the performers wore symbolic masks. This version is much simpler; there is no set to speak of and there are no costumes at all. Director Shane Dempsey has chosen to rely instead on the words and on the talent of the actors to keep the audience’s attention. Thankfully, they certainly are talented. Apart from Connolly himself, each of them plays a multitude of roles, and with no costumes changes – not even a different hat – we have to rely on their delivery to make the distinction between the various characters. They pull it off marvellously. Enviably, they all manage a creditable English, Irish and Scottish accent, and slip seamlessly between ages, nationality and genders to bring the story to life. Arden and D’Arcy’s writing style is not easy on the tongue, being occasionally florid and always quick-fire, regularly lapsing into verse and often making huge leaps in time and place which have to be conveyed somehow to the audience. To manage all of this with no set, costumes or props is a real feat. Naturally the actors are holding scripts – nobody, no matter how talented, could be expected to memorise a script lasting 24 hours – but as you get more absorbed in the story this ceases to be an issue. I do wish, however, that the cast’s outfits had been slightly more formal. Costumes are impossible when every actor is playing so many roles, but to have them all in black, for example, would have made the performance feel slightly more professional. As it was, it looked as though they had just wandered in off the street. I’m sure the director had a good reason for this; maybe to show that they were “Anyman”, but it jarred.
That aside, the story was a gripping one. Interspersed with snatches of traditional Irish music and song, accompanied by a live fiddle, we watched Connolly grow from small, impoverished child to awkward, impoverished teen and then, as his political beliefs began to bring forth green (or rather, red) shoots, into a leader of men. We only got to see Parts 1 and 2, which was both a blessing and a disappointment. A blessing because it was a Monday night, and I don’t think I could have managed an all-nighter, and a disappointment because I was just starting to get into it. Aidan O’Neill and Lucia McAnespie are extremely endearing as James Connolly and his wife Lillie respectively, and I wanted to know what happened to them. Also, the tremors of religious difference were beginning to make themselves felt amongst the heavy rumblings of Home Rule and Socialism, and I had the feeling that things were about to get interesting.
Still, there’s always the epic performances on 23rd and 24th April to look forward to. These are being held on a “Come and Go as You Please” basis, so I may pop in. Partly to see how James and Lillie are getting on, and partly to see how the actors are holding up. This is a brave and commendable undertaking, and I wish them all the very best.
Review by Genni Trickett
Presented as a staged reading, The-Non Stop Connolly Show charts in epic verse and stirring dialogue the life and career Ireland’s greatest revolutionary, James Connolly, from his birth in Scotland through his political maturation in Ireland and America to his last moments in front of a British firing squad.
First seen in a 24 hour performance in Dublin at Easter 1975, this ambitious revival – directed by exciting Irish director Shane Dempsey – will be the first time that the entire cycle has ever been presented continuously in the UK.
Part One: Boyhood 1868 – 1889
James Connolly, born among the Irish in Edinburgh, can find no work, so he joins the Army and is sent to Ireland. He discovers Irish nationalism and international socialism: he discovers a wife: he discovers his political destiny. He determines to go elsewhere.
Part Two: Apprenticeship 1889 – 1896
James Connolly, in Edinburgh once more and married, gains experience in the pioneer socialist movement. He seeks political office and fails to find it: he seeks to earn a living and fails likewise. He determines to go elsewhere.
Part Three: Professional 1896 – 1903
Act I: A Movement with Some Purpose.
James Connolly becomes a political organiser in Dublin and founds the Irish Socialist Republican Party. He meets the New Ireland of the literary renaissance and disrupts the royal jubilee.
Act II: Alarums and Excursions.
James Connolly, in Dublin, leads the Irish Socialist Republican Party in militant opposition to British imperialism and the Boer War. He is criticised by Keir Hardie of the British Labour movement.
Act III: Outmanoeuvered.
James Connolly is rejoiced to find the Irish Socialist Republican Party recognised by the Socialist International. Rosa Luxembourg – in controversy with Kautsky – throws doubt upon Connolly’s view of Irish nationhood. The Irish Socialist Republican Party throws doubt upon his views of political priorities. He determines to go elsewhere.
Part Four: The New World 1903 – 1910
Act I: Into the Party.
James Connolly emigrates to the United States. He joins the Socialist Labour Party, led by Daniel De Leon. He is frustrated by its doctrinaire secretarianism.
Act II: Out of the Party.
James Connolly greets with enthusiasm the Industrial Workers of the World, believing them to be the great new revolutionary force. He forms the Irish Socialist Federation among immigrants of the USA. Unable to accommodate himself to De Leon’s control of the Socialist Labour Party, he determines to pursue politics elsewhere.
Act III: Forward to the Revolution…?
James Connolly, as IWW organiser, struggles against odds in New York. He helps the presidential election campaign of Eugene Debs. He becomes a paid worker for the Socialist Party of America. He determines to go elsewhere.
Part Five: The Great Lockout 1910 – 1914
Act I: Donnybrook Fair.
James Connolly returns to Ireland and its furious political and trade-union confusions. He meets James Larkin, who sends him to Belfast to organise the New Irish Transport Workers’ Union. He has ideological clashes with William Walker of the Northern Ireland labour movement.
Act II: Keir Hardie’s Promise.
James Connolly continues his work in Ireland for the Labour movement. The Irish Labour Party is founded. The Dublin Employers’ Federation is founded. The ‘Great Lockout’ is imposed: Larkin, aided by Connolly, responds with a general strike.
Act III: Once More Go Down to Hell.
James Connolly sees the Dublin General Strike collapse when the British Trade Union leadership fails to respond to the demands of its rank and file that the Irish workers be given positive support. The Irish National Volunteers are formed. The climate of violence intensifies.
Part Six: World War and the Rising 1914 – 1916
Prologue: King Conaire and the Prohibitions.
In ancient times good King Conaire saved the country from its enemies by fighting them against all odds: even though the circumstances of the battle were contrary to the ritual prohibitions prescribed by his Druids.
Act I: Clouds of War.
James Connolly confronts the aftermath of the great lockout in Dublin. The Irish constitutional crisis brings fear of civil war, combining with the threat of a general strike in Britain. International imperial rivalries simultaneously intensify.
Act II: World War to Civil War.
James Connolly sees international socialism collapse in the face of the outbreak of the world war. Resolute in his opposition to imperialism in all its forms, he seeks desperately for allies – in particular from among members of the Irish Republican Brotherhood within the National Volunteers.
Act III: The Rising.
James Connolly brings the Irish Citizen Army into the Rising of Easter 1916: and thereby becomes the first working-class leader to enter the world conflict in the cause of socialism. He is compelled to surrender to superior force: and is shot to death.
Directed by Shane Dempsey
Music by Shane Dempsey
Produced by Abigail Hirsch and Laura Sedgwick
Presented by Neil McPherson for the Finborough Theatre.
Part of the Finborough Theatre’s The Great War 100 Series’