A scene from a rehearsal of last year's production of "The State of the Nation".
In “The State of the Nation”, playwright Conor Malone has created a thought-provoking exploration of where we are as a nation, as seen through the very different perspectives of four towering figures of 19th- and 20th-century Ireland.
But this is no exercise in debate. In this evening of provocative theatre, four giants are brought down to earth, so to speak, as we listen in on a most unusual card game.
The show had a recent successful run at the Civic Theatre in Tallaght, Dublin; the Balor Arts Centre in Ballybofey; and The Playhouse in Derry. It premiered last year at the Balor.
Young Irelander Thomas Davis, Labour leader Big Jim Larkin, revolutionary Michael Collins and former Taoiseach, Charlie Haughey, come together in the afterlife for an evening of poker; it is soon obvious that this is their nightly routine. Are they in heaven? Are they in hell? The men admit they're not sure, though Davis suggests that if they’re waiting to play poker with Haughey, “we’re definitely in hell”.
“He’ll probably bring his own deck with him again,” Larkin suggests. Haughey does.
Wherever they are, the audience is in for a treat. James Lawne as Thomas Davis, Peter Byrne as Big Jim Larkin, Cillian O’Gairbhí as Michael Collins and Conal Gallen as Charlie Haughey bring these giants to life in an evening of poker-table banter, even as they bicker and debate over whether the ideals of 1916 can be found in the actions of government today.
In up-to-the-minute rewrites since the play premiered last year, the sometimes heated conversation touches on everything from the original goals of the Easter Rising to the Troika, Brexit, and the 13 billion euro Ireland appears reluctant to accept from Apple, despite the demands of the European Union.
One more thing: The banter and debate among these men is so natural and thoughtful, that my only fear would be that Conor's dramatic achievement in creating this clever approach to what could be a very dry subject could be overlooked. The supernatural becomes natural in this engaging and challenging work.
Audiences are given much to consider as the evening continues.
“Look, we’ve made some mistakes, I’ll grant you that,” Haughey concedes, at one point. Collins adds, “But they were our mistakes to make.” Exactly, Haughey agrees.
“And Jesus did you make them,” Larkin says.
But who is the “you” in this? With the reminder that the revolutionaries of the early 20th century gave Irish people a say in their future, we must all take responsibility for where we are, and perhaps more importantly, for where we are going.
The play closes with the poker players frozen in place as Letterkenny singer-songwriter Mick Blake’s powerful song, “Oblivious”, plays over them.
“What does it take to make you angry? Where is the spark that lights your flame?” Mick sings.
With this the evening ends as it began, raising another important question for the audience’s consideration.
“The State of the Nation” has been coupled for an evening of theatre with a staged reading of Conor’s radio play, “The Fund”, which won third place in RTÉ’s PJ O’Connor awards in 2015. “The Fund” tells the true story of International Monetary Fund whistleblower Davison Budhoo, whose 1988 letter of resignation to the IMF ran more than 100 pages and detailed his disillusion with the organization.
Coming as it did toward the end of Ireland’s engagement with the IMF, “The Fund” places Ireland’s brutal bailout terms in the broader context of Budhoo’s view of IMF’s monetary machinations all those years ago. It makes for sobering listening, particularly as individuals and communities across Donegal continue to struggle with the economic implications of the terms that were imposed on Ireland, terms that the Irish government accepted.