A puppet government

Legal action has not diluted Anglo: The Musical’s fierce caricatures of the players in our economic crash, says Padraic Killeen

DESPITE legal exchanges with the DPP and Sean Fitzpatrick’s solicitors, Anglo: The Musical, a new show satirising Ireland’s boom-to-bust journey, begins tonight in Dublin. The legal intervention forced the show to axe a Sean Fitzpatrick puppet and to make alterations in content, but the creators say the satire’s potency has not been diluted.

“We are fully participating in the necessary process of law that must take place,” says the director, Michael Barker Caven. “We have no intention of putting that process at threat whatsoever. At the same time, we are not going to bow to censorship and we are not going to bow to unreasonable demands that are an attempt to castrate the show.”

Puppets of Bertie Ahern, Brian Cowen, Enda Kenny, and other public figures remain. None is portrayed with affection, says the show’s writer, Paul Howard.

“I grew up watching Spitting Image on a Sunday night,” says Howard, author of the popular Ross O’Carroll Kelly books. “Spitting Image sent up politicians, sometimes in the most vicious way. In our show, Brian Cowen hands over control of Ireland to Angela Merkel and her ‘petty officer’ Enda Kenny. And that’s what he’s called — ‘petty officer’. The show is a comedy. We are trying to make people laugh. But it has a very hard edge to it as well.”

The concept was devised by Johnny Morrison (Dustin the Turkey), Darren Smith of Kite Entertainment, and Colm Tobin of Langerland.tv. Howard was recruited for the script.

“The three of them had talked about it a lot and it had grown into a bit of a monster,” says Howard. “So it was a case of distilling it down, pulling the best bits out of it, and weaving a story together.”

Anglo: The Musical is about Aisling and Diarmuid, a couple living on the fictional island of Inis Dull. “They’re kind of torn from the pages of Peig Sayers,” says Howard. “Aisling works for the Department of Arts, Heritage, Greyhounds, and What Have You. Diarmuid is a bodhrán maker. They’re engaged to be married, and they have a very happy, simple life. But then, Diarmuid’s cousin Jimmy announces that he’s coming to live on the island. He works for Anglo Irish Bank and he’s going to set up the very first branch on Inis Dull. Shortly after arriving, he points out to Diarmuid and Aisling that they’re ‘debt-poor’ and ‘grossly under-borrowed’, and he persuades them to borrow €890m to build a shopping and apartment complex behind their hovel. It’s about how this dream of a better life that they’ve been sold quickly turns sour.”

Invoking the imagery of an older, romantic Ireland, the show is poking fun at the myth that everything was once pure and innocent in misty, potato-swept Éire.

“There is that notion that before the Celtic Tiger there wasn’t any greed and that we were simple people,” says Howard.

“And it isn’t true. So, yeah, there’s an element of sending that up, as well — that sort of John Hinde postcard Ireland.” (Coincidentally, Howard’s first job was writing captions for the Hinde postcards.)

Ireland has moved on from the dewy-eyed days of asses and carts. As one of the songs in the show says, ‘We Are Where We Are, and Where We Are Is Fucked.’

The puppets were inspired by the success of popular Broadway satire Avenue Q, a risqué parody of Sesame Street. For Howard, the puppets were a reason to be involved. “I saw Avenue Q four or five years ago in New York and I just loved it,” says Howard. “It was so original, so clever and so irreverent. You can get away with so much more when you have puppets on the stage.”

Puppets mix the innocent and the grotesque and that’s potent when dramatising how a select group of gormless, greedy gombeen-men brought a nation to its knees.

One puppet — a red-haired innocent who resembles economist David McWilliams — is pitched as the sensible guy in the midst of madness. “He is symbolic of a voice of reason within the bank,” says Barker Caven. “They gag him and throw him in a cupboard.”

Whether the musical can rise beyond entertaining parody and add to the endless discourse surrounding Anglo is the big question. Barker Caven — who is artistic director of Cork’s Everyman Theatre — says the show bares plenty of teeth.

“None of us set out to create a piece of opportunist pastiche that would be weak and limp and without bite,” he says. “I think people need to get angry. I do believe that, and it’s brought out in the show, I hope. That’s something that people will have a chance to share through the communal act of a piece of theatre — that there are things that people should be mad as hell about.”

“One of the things that attracted me to doing the show is that, fundamentally, it says: ‘It is not your fault’,” says Barker Caven. “There is a history being written at the moment and a narrative set up, subtly, to suggest that we all partied. It’s exploiting the classical Irish sense of guilt. ‘You’re guilty. You pay for it’.”

It is amusing that four years after the bank guarantee, the curtain has barely gone up on Anglo: The Court Case, and yet Anglo: The Musical is already upon us. The tale of the real Anglo Irish Bank is as yet unresolved.

“Legally, it’s unresolved,” says Howard. “The issue of Anglo, and what’s going to happen to the main players, is unresolved. But the effect it’s had on the people of Ireland isn’t unresolved. You see it everyday. You go to Dublin Airport and look at the departures lounge. That is the manifestation of what happened, and not just what happened with Anglo Irish Bank, but with the decision to put the Irish people on the hook for the debts and liabilities of all the Irish banks. I don’t think that bit — the economic impact — is unresolved. It has devastated this country.”

* Anglo – The Musical runs at the Bord Gáis Energy Theatre, Dublin, Nov 13-25

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