Irish audiences feeling the slog of this year’s commemorations must be intimate by now with the details of the 1916 Rising, the armed insurrection-turned-foundational story of our modern Republic. Dust cobwebs off the old story and you might remember that it was the young that lent it momentum. Hundreds of fighters in their teens and early twenties took action, likely radicalised by the Celtic Revival and schools such as Dublin’s St. Enda’s where students personally received honours from Cuchulainn.
Dublin Youth Theatre might lack that propagandistic edge but it has served as boot camp over the years for political theatre makers such as Grace Dyas and Phillip McMahon. Young artists, evidently, aren’t ones to shy away from contentious issues. That must instil faith in director Tom Creed and playwright Helena Enright, whose new verbatim play for Dublin Youth Theatre lifts fragments from interviews with modern day activists and puts them in the mouths of a young ensemble.
Accompanied by a crackling live band (damn talented adolescents!), the cast of twenty, aged anywhere between fourteen and twenty-two, dutifully pass a microphone to and fro. Some shuffle charmingly through reminiscence beyond their years (“Also in the Eighties, Reagan and Russia … that happened”), others arrive with aplomb (“Where do I begin!’). It starts to form a picture of recent history, of political consciousness stirred by the Troubles, 9/11 and the Iraq War, of questionable media and myths, and young people determined to get answers on their own.
You’d suspect certain politics when the cast arrive in Deirdre Dwyer’s costumes – a haul of t-shirts with messages such as “Repeal the 8th”, “Black Lives Matter” and “Yes Equality”. We’re shocked to hear, then, that there are young people believing in God, who support the Eighth Amendment and willing to protest against water charges protesters. The balance struck by Creed and Enright is respectful. Don’t be surprised if a scene dedicated to feminism and calling for abortion legislation is then overturned by a scene showing the other side of the argument (“Life is life”).
A rising at the Abbey Theatre? I know what you’re thinking. “You have disgraced yourself again”. The infamous words of W.B. Yeats to the theatre’s audience at the The Plough and the Stars riots in 1926 couldn’t have picked a better time for a return. Creed and Enright’s arch play on Abbey history leads surprisingly into a discussion of theatre criticism. “I think we like to talk through metaphor -” utters a promising critic in the making, before being interrupted by the loud crunch of guitar and a crew of young woman in formation. With this grungy cheek, Creed’s staging seems to channel the infamous Belgian company Ontroerend Goed, whose teenager plays assail the senses, turn the audience into voyeurs, and even pelt tomatoes at them.
With Bob Marley hooks, the DIY feel of Sarah Jane Shiels’s set – constructed of exposed boards and bulbs – this passionate production is an admirable paean to activism. It’s a question of if its idealism can sell. Some will pat them on the back for their verve. But who knows: maybe this is the generation to rise up.