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The Non-Stop Connolly Show - An Interview with Margaretta D'Arcy and Shane Dempsey

Published by: Carolin Kopplin on 22nd Mar 2016 | View all blogs by Carolin Kopplin

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The Finborough Theatre, known for unearthing forgotten gems and staging provocative new writing, presents The Non-Stop Connolly Show - A Dramatic Cycle of Continuous Struggle in Six Parts by Margaretta D'Arcy and John Arden - an epic play cycle to commemorate the centenary of Dublin's Easter Rising of 1916. First seen in a 24 hour performance in Dublin at Easter (29 March) 1975, this daring revival, directed by Shane Dempsey, will be the first time that the entire cycle has ever been shown continuously in the UK.

Presented as a staged reading, The-Non Stop Connolly Show follows the life and career of Ireland's greatest, yet hardly known, revolutionary, James Connolly, an Irish Republican and a socialist leader, starting with his birth in Scotland to Irish immigrant parents, charting through his political maturation in Ireland and America to his execution by of a British firing squad for his role in the Easter Rising.

Originally produced as a full-scale production in association with the Irish Workers' Cultural Centre, the Irish Transport and General Workers' Union and the Offical Sinn Féin Party, the play consisted of six parts and was performed over 24 hours in Dublin.

I asked Margaretta D'Arcy why she and John Arden chose the form of a play cycle when writing the play. Ms D'Arcy explained that 1975 was a ferocious time. There was internment without trial and torture, comparable to what was going on in Abu Ghraib years later, and splits within the Republican movement: "Those were dirty times." When she and John Arden decided to write a play about James Connolly to give him the recognition he deserved, they knew that it would have to be long in order to cover his entire history. Written in verse and consisting of very short contrasting scenes, the structure of the play was inspired by rituals requiring that various tasks had to be fulfilled before a person is recognised, which goes back to ancient history.

D'Arcy and Arden decided not to stage their work in a conventional theatre setting, presenting the cycle in Liberty Hall instead. It was an enormous production and very expensive using masks with the actors being on stage throughout, changing into different characters in full view of the audience. As the Finborough is an intimate space, it was decided that a staged reading would be preferable. In a future production Ms D'Arcy would like to see several actors of different genders playing James Connolly.

Director Shane Dempsey explained that the main reason they had gone for a staged reading as opposed to a full production is to do with time constraints: "This is the first London production in over forty years so we are all feeling the significance of this.  The essence of the play lies in its desire to tell Connolly's story. We will be breathing life to a work of major importance and giving voice to people that are often ignored in traditional conversations around The Dublin Rising." 

The play is very dense, consisting of 6 parts and 14 sections, with each section being a play of its own, and different issues being discussed in the different parts. Ms Darcy sees James Connolly as one of the few professional socialists in the Uprising and quite a unique man, who had a  theoretical understanding of what he was doing: "He got lost." Ms D'Arcy explained that after the War of Independence, any hint of socialism was smashed as the Church and the Bourgeois took over. Only the glory of 1916 remains. She thinks it is very important to tell his story: "He went to Edinburgh to join his brother. He was invited to the U. S. to bring the Irish in." Yet because of a difference of opinion, he left the U. S. for Belfast, where he was sent as an organiser. He was always a socialist and his writing remains so people can learn from him although he is not there any more.

Shane Dempsey agreed with me that it seemed that Connolly was certainly on a continuous journey. However, he would argue that it was a journey of political awakening. "He witnessed incredible injustices in his early life and many would claim that this influenced the path he followed. What is certain is his fundamental desire to create a more humane, fair and just society and this to him was more important that the notion of Irish independence. This is often ignored but is essential to understanding was made Connolly tick." 

Margaretta D'Arcy thinks that the play cycle is still relevant today because Britain is still occupying Northern Ireland and there are U.S. forces in Ireland although it is supposed to be a neutral country. A member of Aosdána since its inauguration and an activist, Ms D'Arcy was sentenced to three months in prison for the 2012 protest against the use of Shannon Airport as a military base for U. S. military planes. She was offered an opportunity to avoid prison if she signed a bond not to trespass on parts of Shannon Airport not open to the public but she refused. Ms D'Arcy believes that Northern Ireland is still occupied because of military reasons: "Military is big business." She sets her hopes on Jeremy Corbyn who she considers a progressive force in England: "We must join together." Ms D'Arcy hopes that the play cycle about James Connolly will help the audience understand his struggles and to have communality, "to understand that we all struggle for the same". 

Shane Dempsey would like the audience to come away with a greater understanding of James Connolly, the man rather than the myth. "We want our audiences to be moved and engage their hearts as well as their heads.  The play is highly theatrical and has a vibrant energy flowing through it. This comes from the author’s passion to give voice to these wonderful people and I am delighted to help shed some light on this fascinating era of history."  

During the performance of the entire play cycle over the 23rd and 24th April, audience member can come and go as they please during the performance. Margaretta D'Arcy hopes that people will see the whole cycle to become fully immersed in James Connolly's world. Shane Dempsey also hopes that the audience will come and stay although he sees something refreshing about an audience who have the freedom to come and go. "In the sometimes stifling London theatre scene it feels like a welcome change. We are going walking an unknown path and that of course fills us with a little trepidation but also an immense excitement." 

Interviews conducted by Carolin Kopplin. 

More information on the show and booking:

www.finboroughtheatre.co.uk

The entire play cycle can be seen on the anniversary of the Easter Rising itself – Saturday, 23 April and Sunday, 24 April.

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