Saturday, September 28, 2019

Blood Upon the Rose – an ambitious, well-produced though uncritical retelling of the Easter Rising (Grand Opera House until 28 September)

Blood Upon the Rose is an ambitious piece of musical theatre by the River Tall Community Theatre that picks out the love story between Grace Gifford and Joseph Plunkett from a wider retelling of the 1916 Easter Rising.

Starting with the immediate aftermath of Plunkett’s execution, the production goes back to the secret planning for the rebellion, the organisational and situational barriers, scenes of battle, surrender and the repercussions. Along the way we watch as Plunkett flirts with Gifford, mansplaining until it is briefly established that she’s an intellectual match, kindling romance though relegating her to the role of silent partner as the Rising becomes his mistress.

Daniel Donnelly plays Plunkett and captures well the contradictions at the heart of this central character: a strong faith, living with debilitating tuberculosis, yet deliberately hiding both his health and his involvement with the uprising from his future wife. His voice blends well with the powerful sound from mezzo-soprano Lauren McCrory (playing Gifford) who embodies the confidence of an artist walking away from the dominant politics and religion of her parents, strong enough to free her fiancé to take action and accepting of the likely brevity of their relationship.

At times the love story, and particularly the life of Grace Gifford, disappears from view for long periods, though the staging of Frank and Seán O'Meara’s song Grace is soaked in emotion as the couple marry in the prison chapel on the eve of Plunkett’s execution.

Scenes with the Irish Republican Brotherhood negotiating with he Irish Citizen Army’s James Connolly to unify disparate campaigns trigger flashbacks to the failed attempts to get Vote Leave and Leave.EU to cooperate during the EU Referendum. Given the secular feel to the expression of modern-day Sinn Féin republicanism, it’s fascinating to watch the thread of strong faith running through many of the major players in the Rising.

“My religion is my essence” says Plunkett, “without faith I am nothing”. Though the contradiction of knowingly “planning a blood sacrifice to awaken a nation” and condemning young men to death is never tackled or challenged in the show.

Dermy McCann delivers a particularly intense performance as Thomas Clarke, the charismatic proponent of armed revolution. Sinead Willox is striking as the forthright and outspoken Countess Markieviez, and along with Roisin Mc Aliskey’s Winifred Carney the pair finally raise women’s voices in the history of the Rising.

Michael Collins’ speech to the volunteers in the thick of battle lacks impact, though the combination of music from the six-piece band, pyrotechnics and stabs of light bring to life the confusion and stress of the battle scenes.

Kevin O’Kane’s static set supports numerous locations with minimal props, though the newspaper clipping panels are stylistically at odds with the brick panelling and architectural features on the remaining elements.

The lighting design gives Blood Upon the Rose a real boost, taking full advantage of the height above the Grand Opera House stage and the depth of the auditorium to add atmosphere to the action. Green, white and orange beams create a dramatic tricolour flag at appropriate moments, far more impressive than smaller flags carried on stage.

A video screen behind the set is very effective as a vivid stained-glass window in St Mary’s Pro Cathedral and shows black and white archive footage of the Rising and eventual surrender. However, it is unfortunate that some captioned graphics are used that are wider than the visible area of the screen.

Writer/director Gerry Cunningham has created an Evita-like version of history, using the very talented Conor Begley as the priestly narrator to walk through scenes – though with much less analytical commentary than Webber/Rice’s Che. Donaghy’s It’s Nearly Over Now in the second act is a beautiful moment after a tense Easter Monday.

Blood Upon the Rose is a very unquestioning and uncritical retelling, that makes little effort to expose the real contradictions and likely failings of some of those who signed the Proclamation. (Pádraig Pearse gets away particularly lightly.) There is a brief acknowledgement that civilians and British forces died as well as volunteers during the Rising.

There’s room for partisan and even patriotic theatre, but with past events that continue to shape the politics and people of this island today, Blood Upon the Rose veers dangerously close to reducing a bloody piece of important history to a sham folktale, a simple retelling without any benefit of hindsight. It’s unsettling to see audience members swaying their arms in the air like a pop concert and waving banners during the finale while Plunkett lies dead on the stage.

In terms of production values and on-stage talent, Blood Upon the Rose is a spectacular triumph for an amateur company. And it was certainly the most unexpected example of rollerskating in a theatre production for years! However, the difficulty in stretching out the romance to better fill the two and a half hour runtime gives the historical re-enactment top billing and demotes what could have been more engaging human elements between the interestingly-drawn characters.

Blood Upon the Rose finishes its sold out run at the Grand Opera House on Saturday 28 September after a tour that has taken the show to London, Glasgow and Dublin.

Photo credit: River Tall Community Theatre

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