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Review: The Fall of the Second Republic

This new co-production of the Corn Exchange and the Abbey falls at even the shortest hurdles

By Rory O’Sullivan

The best moment in The Fall of the Second Republic is at its end. Emer Hackett (Caitríona Ennis), a journalist, has spent the play trying to expose corruption in the government of Manny Spillane (Andrew Bennett), but has failed and Spillane has turned Ireland into a dictatorship. She is pregnant and says to her baby, “It will fall – one day”. The title then makes sense to the audience: the fall of the play’s corrupt system is always looked forward to, always thought to be just ahead, but never comes. It’s a clever reversal, dramatically and thematically interesting.

The Fall of the Second Republic certainly contains some good moments like this. It’s also sometimes funny, even if the humour too often consists of stereotypes and people running loudly around a stage. Of course it is extremely rare to witness a play in which there are no good moments at all. There is usually too much stage-time and too many moving parts – actors, script, stage, audience – for everything to fail at once.

Instead, what separates a professional play from something in the university players is that in the former there is an overarching coherence. Anyone can make a few dramatic moments, but only a playwright can write a drama, and only a director and actors can perform it. For this there needs to be a plot, characters, themes and a coherent theatrical world in which those three elements exist. Together these forces must all move as one: whenever a play is choosing between the coherence of its plot and the coherence of its characters, something has gone wrong. To do this well is difficult, which is why not everyone works in writing or theatre; but when fully realised, it is one of the most powerful things in the world, which is why tourists still visit Shakespeare’s birthplace and students read his works in school.

You could think of it this way. It’s pointlessly broad to ask what art ‘is’, but simple enough to recognise what art is a category of, which is constructive reasoning. It doesn’t matter if that reasoning is of chord progressions or word progressions, events moving like clock-hands or emotional waves rolling over each other. Any great aesthetic effect exists only in the context of what is around it. Aristotle said that discovery and reversal are the core of every dramatic plot, but these both presuppose something. For the reversal of Oedipus’ fortunes to matter, for his discovery of what he has done to mean something, we need to experience a world and a character that tee them up. For all plays of all kinds, every moment must be there for a reason that can be justified as a product of its determinative logic. 

The Fall of the Second Republic, written by Michael West, directed by Annie Ryan, a co-production of the Corn Exchange and the Abbey Theatre, is a thorough disappointment above all because it does not do any of this. The plot is nothing more than a record of the characters’ reactions to bizarre Dei ex Machina; the characters themselves are mere caricatures; thematically the play explores problems in Irish politics that no longer exist or never existed; the dramatic world lurches between different decades without ever explaining itself. 

Is the Taoiseach, Manny Spillane, with his Garret-FitzGerald hair, an evil genius destroying the country’s institutions for money and power? Or is he a wailing incompetent, exploited by those around him and propped up by his devoted secretary, Goretti (Anna Healy)? In the play he is both: at once a fiendish caricature of Charles Haughey and a poor imitation of Jim Hacker. We are never provided with a sense of how these two personalities can fit together in a single character.  They contradict each other. Spillane ends up declaring martial law and turning Ireland into a dictatorship to save his political career and smother a newspaper story about corruption in the development of the fictional Irish Banking Centre (IBC). How Spillane is politically strong enough to end Irish democracy, but vulnerable enough to be brought down by a bad newspaper story, is never explained. If the Gardaí and judiciary are so deep within his pocket that he can arrest the entire opposition and Ceann Comhairle, why worry about a Tribunal? In general, this is the problem thematically with the play. If it is intended on any level to be politically relevant and to take corruption seriously, it fails because it is not coherent enough to capture the systemic and endemic corruption that actually prevailed in Ireland in the late 20th century. Instead, its politicians are a whimsical group of capricious murderers. Its comments not so much on Ireland in any decade as an absurd non-reality.

The other main character apart from Spillane is the journalist Emer Hackett, whose personality stretches no further than ‘independent woman trying to do good’. There is nothing interesting about her, nothing whatsoever unpredictable. She is less a character than a bundle of attributes and experiences we’re all supposed to admire. She tries to do a good thing in a bad world with the deck stacked against her and it backfires. A few bells and whistles are attached to her story – she becomes pregnant, for example – but nothing that has not been overdone before. It is impossible to care about her.

Where the play is original, it contradicts itself to absurdity; where it is consistent, it is maddeningly stereotypical. There is the inevitable abortion subplot as well as the drunken Irishman in the form of Billy Kinlan (Declan Conlon), Spillane’s Tánaiste and willing idiot. There are token references to Northern Ireland. A TD from Donegal (also played by Anna Healy) returns from a fact-finding mission in Derry. One subplot involves Emer’s boyfriend and fellow journalist, Finbar (John Doran), accepting a job covering the conflict in Northern Ireland, but the token references are never more than token references. Emer and Finbar, as it happens, have a sort of love-story that ends abruptly when Finbar is kidnapped and murdered by Flynn’s henchman, who first manage to keep him tied up in Leinster House for more than a day while Opposition TDs are at work and gardaí look for him. 

From a number of angles it is hard to know how to respond to something like this. The Corn Exchange is a company which has been around for a long time – since 1995 – and was hit hard in recent years by cuts to its funding. The lesson of this play could be that if we are to have high-quality theatre, we need to be willing to pay for it; if companies have tiny budgets they are forced to make impossible compromises. But there is also a basic professionalism missing from The Fall of the Second Republic at the core of its construction – one which any paying audience, not least that of the country’s national theatre, is entitled to demand. Actors though they may be, no one on the Abbey’s stage will succeed in convincing an audience of reasonable people that the Emperor has clothes. To make a credible case for arts funding, theatres need to make art.