‘General swearing and delight” is playwright Michael West’s winning stage direction for a smoky, boozy day at an Irish newspaper office. In his new political comedy, The Fall of the Second Republic, early 1970s Dublin is conjured with an affectionately satirical touch.
West’s script for this co-production between Irish theatre group the Corn Exchange and the Abbey theatre is anchored in a few facts about 1973, a year in which a general election and a presidential election were held in Ireland. From there, it spins into a manically inventive counterfactual caper; absurd but with recognisable flashes of reality and bite, especially about political cynicism towards the arts and culture. Portraying business-as-usual centrist politics suddenly lurching towards a violent coup d’état and martial law, West and director Annie Ryan clearly have the present rise in unpredictable geopolitics in mind.
In the rehearsal room of the Abbey, Ryan reflects on the currency of the play. “It feels as if we’re in flux. Everything is shifting, our old certainties. We’re exploring the possibility of that change taking us into a much darker place, or backwards. The last time we felt that was with Freefall, which seemed to be hitting the zeitgeist with the fall of the economy.”
Staged in 2010, Freefall coincided with the Corn Exchange receiving a 48% cut to their Arts Council funding; this time around, the cut in annual programming funding to the 25-year-old company is total. So it’s hardly surprising that change and uncertainty are at the forefront of their minds, even if, for the moment, the duo are concentrating on nightly redrafts of the script.
As with their production Dublin By Lamplight, which presented a brilliantly imagined alternative history of the founding of Ireland’s national theatre in 1904, this new ensemble work mashes up fantasy and reality, asking what if?
“The glimmer of the idea began 10 years ago, when I began to think about the grandchildren of the characters in Dublin By Lamplight,” West says. “What would they make of the Republic, 50 years on? And there was something about 1973 that seemed just right. Watergate, of course, which became the high-water mark for investigative journalism, and the role of truth in politics. That all changed in the 80s, and now truth has no power at all.”
The play’s parallel strands reflect the enmeshed worlds of Dublin politics and journalism, played out on the streets of a city where everyone of influence knew each other personally. Viewed through the eyes of a young reporter, Emer Hackett (Caitríona Ennis), the political chicanery becomes sinister as she starts to uncover the truth connecting murky property deals to the seemingly untouchable taoiseach, Manny Spillane (Andrew Bennett).
Questions of ethics are lightly threaded though a pub scene where Emer and her colleague and lover, Finbar (John Doran), encounter the intimidating property dealer she has been trying to interview. Would rifling through his briefcase or eavesdropping on his phone calls be an invasion of privacy, or legitimate journalism? Emer doesn’t hesitate.
“Emer’s perspective was really important to me, and I wanted to work that in,” Ryan says. “My recent work on stage adaptations, whether it was The Misfits, The Seagull, and especially A Girl is a Half-formed Thing delved deeply into women’s experience of the world.” That experience encompasses the all-pervasive misogyny of the time, not only towards Emer but also to the female politicians, most of whom are sisters or daughters of their male colleagues. “The challenge is how to portray misogyny without it being a misogynist piece,” West says.
West and Ryan speak at top speed, flinging out references – from the films of Roy Andersson informing the play’s design, to Armando Iannucci’s The Death of Stalin as an influence on its tone. “It’s possible to watch that without knowing Russian history in depth,” says Ryan. “Likewise, you don’t have to be an expert on the Irish Republic’s constitution to enjoy the mad political twists of this play.”
“I wanted to draw on all the great conspiracy thrillers of the 1970s,” adds West. “That paranoid atmosphere. But it needs to be quick and light also, almost vaudeville in style. So maybe it’s All the President’s Men meets 1940s screwball comedies such as His Girl Friday.”
As it happens, the rehearsals took place in the final weeks of another general election campaign, with fleeting headlines about the unthinkable: a possible coalition between the two main, traditionally opposed, parties, Fine Gael and Fianna Fáil, echoing West’s fictional Grand Coalition in the play.
“The parallels keep getting better,”’ he laughs. “But that’s an accident. I started work on this in 2017 and it was originally scheduled for the Abbey’s programme for last year. But, yes, the timing is a gift.”
• The Fall of the Second Republic is at the Abbey Theatre, Dublin, until 14 March