Marking the centenary of the signing of the Anglo-Irish Treaty 1921 on Monday 6 December, the Irish Embassy in London last week hosted a special run of performances of Colin Murphy’s new play The Treaty, presented by Fishamble, the New Play Company.
Directed by Conall Morrison, The Treaty tells the story of what happened inside the negotiations when a small group of untested politicians including Michael Collins travelled to London to negotiate for Irish independence.
Although there was mistrust on both sides and many setbacks, the negotiations concluded with a landmark moment in Irish history that led to the establishment of the Irish State.
Playwright Colin Murphy told The Irish World what it meant to bring the play to London as part of the embassy’s programme of events marking the centenary.
Colin said: “It’s just a thrill for us to bring this play here to London, and to be in the ballroom of the Irish embassy on the centenary of the negotiations. It is just a privilege. It’s a treat.
“And dramatically, it’s a thrill to sit in a room very like the rooms they would have sat in, a period room like the cabinet room of Downing Street, in the same city, a couple of streets over from where the Earl of Birkenhead, one of the characters, lived.
“These streets are marked with the events of the play.
“We’re not far from Hans Place where the Irish delegation were living.
“It adds something intangible to the play, to the atmosphere of it.
“So we’re very grateful to those who helped make it happen.
Fishamble had previously staged a poignant performance of their Inside the GPO, also written by Colin, back in 2016 to mark the centenary of the rising. President Michael D Higgins described it as a “Wonderful production.”
“We did a play about the Easter Rising called Inside the GPO in the GPO on the centenary.
“So this is our second time doing a history play on the centenary.
“The play has to work on its own merits, the play has to be a good drama in itself.
“But when you have the date as well, it just gives a little extra resonance which is nice.
“But we’re not bound by the centenary of the signing of the treaty because it’s the story of the Civil War, because what we hear thrashed out in the play is exactly the issues that were thrashed out across every table in the country over the year and a half after it.
“And the play does take us through to the end of the Civil War.
“So it’s a play of this period rather than the specific dates of the centenary.”
The Treaty will also be staged in the Kevin Barry Recital Room at the National Concert Hall, Dublin, where the Irish parliamentary debates on the Treaty actually took place in 1921.
The play’s exchanges are often intense as the British delegation, headed by Prime Minister David Lloyd George, seek to solve the ‘Irish problem’ that has not been solved for 700 years while Collins and the other Irish plenipotentiaries look to achieve ‘external association’ with the empire.
Full of historical giants in terms of characters, the exchanges are particularly fascinating when Michael Collins comes face-to-face with Winston Churchill, the man who put a price on his head.
Patrick Moy makes a compelling Collins who speaks poignantly of Tom Clarke’s humiliation after surrender and gets many laughs including describing ‘external association’ as being hard to get into a ballad.
Camille Lucy Ross often steals the show as Churchill including with the particularly memorable line about the six counties: “We don’t want them but we can’t be seen to give them away.”
Eamon de Valera is also played a female in Jane Brennan. Although he is seldom seen due to not being part of the negotiations, the question is repeatedly asked about why he did not lead them himself as their “chief”.
“I think it’s quite daunting for the cast,” Colin says of bringing such historical figures to life.
“I think they go into it kind of worried about being judged against all the great actors who have played these roles in the past- for some of the women being judged against great male actors- and judged against the actual historical figures that are so well known to so many people.
“Then what happens is you get into the rehearsal room and people start to shed all of those concerns and just immerse themselves in the script.
“And they discover their own versions of those characters, so they end up playing the Michael Collins that’s on the page of the play, not the Michael Collins that’s in the history books.
“They have to have to make that difference and they have to fully take ownership of it.
“It’s a real joy, as a writer to sit back and to see the director lead the actors through that and to see them really just take ownership of those roles.
“I think, paradoxically, casting women in some of those male roles helps.
“In a certain sense, it asserts our 21st century ownership of these parts and frees us a little from that kind of historical baggage.
“We’re not trying to be perfect replicas, because obviously we’re not.
“These are new versions of these characters to create this play.”
The narration of Kate Stanley Brennan, playing activist and journalist Kathleen McKenna, keeps the audience engaged and things moving at a pace.
Although the treaty would be divisive and lead to Civil War, the alternative was war within three days, hardly an option for Collins’ men who had one round each.
“When you’re writing journalism or history, you have to be historically accurate.
“When you’re writing drama based on history, you have to be credible. You have to be authentic.
“And you have to be true to the stakes involved and to the emotions, but literal accuracy is impossible. You’re telling a story of two months in 90 minutes. You’re telling a story that involved tens, if not hundreds of people, with 12 bodies.
“So you have to be willing to not be bound by literal accuracy in order to make it work as a story.”
Colin pointed out the prescient themes and parallels that arise in the play due to Brexit as the play sees the Irish wanting a hard exit from the British Empire and seeking to take back control while the British believed they were stronger together.
While the Unionists believed in a hard border on the island of Ireland, the Republicans wanted the border in the Irish Sea.
“There’s an extraordinary parallel between the Irish negotiations to leave the British Empire, and the British negotiations to leave the European Union.
“And it’s not necessarily an obvious parallel but when you read into the debates that were held around Irish independence, the Irish treaty, the ‘remainer side’ then who were the imperialists- which is the great irony because their inheritors have now become the leavers in the Brexit debate- The parallel could be very close and the echoes even in the turns of phrase and the ideas that people are using.
“I was looking forward to seeing how that resonated in London, and you can feel it in the room.
“You can sort of hear chuckles at different lines and a little edge to that Brexit paradox.”
A special online digital presentation is available for streaming here. This performance is available to view until 12 December.