A play with songs that works in the most achingly beautiful way – To Have To Shoot Irishmen is quietly stunning at the Clapham Omnibus
“Some things are worth fighting for”
Too often, the term ‘play with songs’ is abused by marketing types to avoid using the word musical in all its apparent divisiveness. So what a blessed relief to find that Lizzie Nunnery’s To Have To Shoot Irishmen is pretty much a perfect representation of the form. A suite of original songs composed by her and Vidar Norheim are sprinkled throughout the play almost as bookends to scenes, enriching the text with their eloquent lyrics and folk-tinged mood.
They don’t progress the narrative for that is not their purpose. Nunnery’s story is as shattered as the set on which it takes place (considered design work from Rachael Rooney), a Dublin neighbourhood ripped apart by the Easter Rising. There, a young mother named Hanna searches anxiously for her husband, the writer and activist Francis Sheehy Skeffington, with a growing sense of dread; and at some point in the recent past, we follow Frank’s experience being held by the British army.
And as Hanna is visited by a British officer appalled by what is being done and Frank extends an almost impossible kindness to the young guard looking after him, Nunnery explores the personal impact of being at the heart of a conflict that raging around you. The corrosive effects of unjustly violent acts, the way they create scars that will last for generations, and the naïveté of colonial rulers too blind to see what true damage their actions are wreaking.
Through her four characters, there’s a powerful sense of this injustice but there’s also a careful sensitivity from Nunnery here too. This is no potted history lesson, leaning one way or the other, Gemma Kerr’s nuanced direction leaves much for us to intuit, to consider and explore for ourselves, as notions of responsibility and pacifism are tested to the extreme. It may frustrate some but I found it an intelligent way to approach an issue that is still so contentious in so many ways.
Kerr also works wonders with an excellent cast. Russell Richardson and Robbie O’Neill both impress as the miltarymen, older and younger respectively, and Gerard Kearns is a hugely fascinating figure with his deep swathes of emotional intelligence. But it is Elinor Lawless who emerges as the real star – a voice full of anger and anguish, whether leading on a haunting folk melody or raging against the bloody unfairness of it all for her, for her child, for her whole country. Exceptional.