By Joseph Hurley
PROPHETS AND HEROES: A Celebration” Irish Repertory Theatre Benefit. At the Cort Theatre, NYC. Monday, June 8.
For its ninth fund-raising benefit, the Irish Repertory Theatre took something of a calculated risk, and emerged with a success.
The evening, performed on Monday, June 8, at the Cort Theatre, was, like last year’s easily digested “The Irish . . . and How They Got That Way,” in the nature of a scrapbook, a compilation of shards and fragments centering on a single idea, but this time a serious and basically painful one, namely the conflicts, internal and external, that have contributed to making Ireland, particularly Northern Ireland, a battleground for centuries.
The group’s decision to tackle material vastly more serious than its usual benefit fare was prompted, of course, by the Northern Ireland peace agreement, which, when the Rep’s co-founders Ciaran O’Reilly and Charlotte Moore planned the evening, was still looming on the horizon as a vote whose positive outcome was probable, but by no means absolutely secure.
The overwhelming affirmation provided by the outcome of the vote on May 22 turned the Irish Rep’s benefit into a kind of victory celebration, and gave the evening a tone of joyous thankfulness that tended to neutralize the inherent bitterness of portions of the text.
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Whereas last year’s light-hearted compendium was somewhat opportunistically “authored” by the then-hot Frank McCourt, the text this time, something of a thoughtful refresher course in the history of Irish unrest, went without a writer’s credit, although it appears to have been put together, in the main, by the organization’s artistic director, Moore, with an assist from her partner, Producing Director O’Reilly, and maybe a bit of a boost from the group’s gifted and versatile musical advisor, Rusty Magee.
The evening’s hosts were Liam Neeson and his wife, Natasha Richardson, the latter still glowing from her “Cabaret” Tony Award victory a day earlier. Since the night of the Rep benefit, June 8, was also Neeson’s 43rd birthday, and other plans had been made, the couple’s participation at the Cort was brief. Richardson read a few lines of Yeats, and then her husband, departing from the script he’d been holding, read a moving passage from “De Profundis,” one of the last works of Oscar Wilde, whom the actor is playing on Broadway in David Hare’s “The Judas Kiss.”
With the benefit cast of 15 seated in a semi-circle behind her, Richardson brought on her mother, Vanessa Redgrave, saying simply, “I’d like to introduce my mum.” Redgrave told the audience that “Since this is Liam’s birthday, I think we ought to sing to him.”
The full house did precisely that, while the actor grew red-faced, seemed to be looking for a place to hide, and, finally, straightened up and saluted the audience. Richardson took her husband’s hand, and the couple, beaming with obvious pleasure, vanished into the night, leaving the evening’s more serious materials, which began with the singing of the Irish and American national anthems, to those who remained, the affable Redgrave included, sitting at the center of the arc of performers.
Actress Redgrave opened the textual portion of the bill with a reading of “Sometimes,” a poem by Sheenagh Pugh, followed by a brief number by Tommy Makem, accompanied by his son, Rory. Terry Donnelly’s first contribution was a recounting of the legend that holds that the very first invasion of Ireland was at the hands of relatives of Noah, three men and 51 women who had been refused entry onto the Ark.
Pauline Flanagan followed with a poetic version of the same tale, and Milo O’Shea topped it off with a joke about a Kerryman, who, when offered a place on the Ark, refused on the grounds that the deluge was, in Irish terms, “only a shower.”
The bulk of the first half of the evening was a straight ahead recounting of Irish history, with special emphasis on invasions and injustices, starting with the 1169 incursion at the hands of the Earl of Pembroke, otherwise known as Strongbow, who led the first English army into Ireland and thereafter established a cluster of British settlements, endlessly the occasions of struggle and conflict.
Brian F. O’Byrne’s account of the Strongbow story was followed by O’Reilly’s recitation of a passage from playwright Frank McGuinness’s “Observe the Sons of Ulster Marching Towards the Somme,” and readings by Schuyler Grant, Eric Stoltz, Tate Donovan and Frank McCourt, who commented that the origin of Irish nationalism could be traced to Theobold Wolfe Tone’s founding of the Society of United Irishmen in 1791, leading to what he called “the great risings of 1798.”
Two musical highlights of the early evening were Tommy Makem’s version of “Kelly the Boy From Killane,” and, virtually stopping the show, Marion Tomas Griffin’s poignant rendition of “The Fields of Athenry,” accompanied by Rory Makem.
Handing off the narrative, one after another, the Rep regulars and their guest performers brought the story up to present days, with musical interludes provided by the Makems, Kitty Sullivan, and Ciaran Sheehan, whose soaring tenor was heart to particularly strong advantage on “Danny Boy,” which was introduced by O’Reilly as “an Irish song that transcends all politics.”
Scenes from “The Shadow of a Gunman,” “The Plough and the Stars,” and “Juno and the Paycock,” all by Sean O’Casey, were performed, as was an extract from an early Brian Friel play, “The Freedom of the City,” and a portion of poet Louis MacNeice’s “Autumn Journal,” this last read by actress Flanagan.
All the great names were invoked, along with portions of their most memorable speeches. Robert Emmet was heard from, as were James Larkin, Padraic Pearse, Daniel O’Connell, Charles Stewart Parnell, Michael Collins, Eamon de Valera, and the others.
After an intermission in which trips to Ireland, stays in Irish hotels, not to mention a Waterford crystal bowl, were raffled off, the Rep brought on two present day heroes, Sen. George Mitchell, head of the Mitchell Commission, who’s document leading to the peace agreement, and John Hume, leader of the Social Democratic and Labour Party, and, incidentally, the Irish Echo’s Man of the Year in 1994.
Mitchell, the former senator from Maine, who has been involved in the Irish peace process since 1995, described himself as the grandson of Irish immigrants and recalled his grandmother as a simple woman who never learned to read or write. He cited his own rise to the position of Senate majority leader as an example of what can happen in America. In addition, he described the May 22 referendum’s “Yes” vote of 71 percent in the North and 94 percent in the South as “a powerful message the people want to settle their problems through peaceful and democratic means,” and commented that the Irish people “deserve much better for the troubles they have had over the past 30 years.”
John Hume took the stage and sang Phil Coulter’s song “The Town I Loved So Well,” as he did some months ago at the White House. Hume’s simple, heartfelt, slightly toneless rendition of the song brought tears to many eyes in the Cort Theatre audience, including quite a few on stage.
Nothing in the evening, however, proved more eloquent or more moving than the Irish Rep actors’ readings of a collection of letters written to the Irish prime minister by children, mainly between the ages of 8 and 11, who had observed at firsthand the violence that has blighted the North for more than a generation.
The Irish Rep displayed imagination and daring and came up with a little victory of its own last Monday night.