September 1920 during the Irish War of Independence, dockers and railwaymen refused to transport any armed troops, or to handle any weapons arriving from Britain. On the centenary of this act of civil resistance, Fishamble brings us Embargo. “What made Ireland ungovernable was the refusal of the general population to cooperate with authorities…” (Playwright Dierdre Kinahan) Three ordinary people are caught in headwinds against which resistance was futile. The play comes alive in flashback.
Now a train conductor, Gracie (Matthew Malone) is a veteran of WWI trenches in France. He got through it by keeping his head in the mud, never lifting a gun, singing and dancing to bolster the troops. (Demonstrating movement is deftly effeminate.) “To sidestep death was illusion.” Emotional repercussions remain. Because his brother is staunch IRA, Gracie’s protected from discrimination and considered one of the boys. Maturity and experience keep him from blood lust and political passion.
Terrorized, Jane (Mary Murray) jumps into the train cab. She has blood on her dress and a dockworker’s hook wielded in panic. Desperate, the widow had offered herself to a local “boss” in order to secure work for son Jimmy so that the family might eat. Result: he laughed, spit and clawed at her. “Rage is a curious event. It was rage that gripped me.” She swiped him across the face with the nearest sharp object (the hook) and fled. In fear for her life, Jane demands that she be allowed to hitch a ride from Dublin to Belfast where she has a friend.
She talks about her background, husband, the toll of war. Some is joyous, some horrific. The actress morphs seamlessly. “I really believed back then we could free ourselves from our pitiful existence.” She’s tormented, exhausted, living on the fumes of faith. Gracie tells her to hide in the corner.
Language is rich and poetic, but not so literary as to sound false. Acting is focused, visceral.
Young stoker Jack (Callan Cummins) is late for work. Intoxicated by The Movement, sworn to the IRA at age 16 like his peers, he’s all in. He informs Gracie the train is, in fact, not leaving, at least not with them at the helm. Hundreds of British soldiers are boarding. The embargo dictates they can’t facilitate transport. “After months of maneuvers, this is real!” he says excitedly. Then, noticing Jane, “Who’s she?!”
Gracie explains Jane’s predicament. Jack suffers not a moment of compassion. He has no regrets for killing, considers only glorious goals. Gracie says they’ll have to find another way to help. Jane begs, then threatens. She’s through with running.
The situation is in the conductor’s hands. We learn what occurs, then, back to the present, watch and hear unpredictable consequences with which the play began. “Flickers of history, phantoms of war. Our struggles are yours…”
All three characters are fleshed out and credible. War/fight for freedom, even if you’re unfamiliar with this particular setting, is familiar in its rage (a word here often repeated in chorus), justification, and cost.
Director Maisie Lee has conjured empathetic time and place. Economic staging works wonderfully except for those very few moments when an actor seems aware of a camera. Body language, especially that of Gracie, is effective. Actors are invested, accents intelligible – though Murray might show down a bit when she’s overwrought as some language is lost.
Set and Lighting by Zia Bergin-Holly is evocative, but I admit to not understanding papers frozen in the process of falling through the air. (What are they?) Music/Sound by Denis Cohessy is symbiotic/integral. Catherine Fray’s Costumes are good, but a bit clean under the circumstances.
Another excellent production from a company that seems always to deliver compelling theater.
Fishamble commissioned by Iarnród Éireann and Dublin Port Company (Artistic Director, Jim Culleton) as part of the Dublin Theatre Festival 2020.
Written by Dierdre Kinahan
Directed by Maisie Lee
Photos by Anthony Woods
Online through Sunday October 25. Free of charge. Go to the Fishamble website for more information.