Lining out for another run on the stage

Writer and director, John Breen, has no problem being known as the guy who wrote Alone It Stands.

The hit play, which tells the story of Munster’s 12-0 victory over the All Blacks in 1978 was first produced in 1999. Alone It Stands has now been seen all over Ireland and has travelled to the UK, Australia, France, Malaysia, New Zealand and Tasmania. It’s estimated that 260,000 people worldwide have seen it.

Breen hopes that the new production of Alone It Stands — the first in five years — will attract a new audience as well as people who want to relive the experience of this theatrical tour de force in which six actors play 62 roles.

The Limerick native wrote the play “to evangelise on behalf of Limerick rugby culture. But you don’t have to actually know anything about rugby to get it”.

When a theatrical colleague suggested to Breen that he write a play about the momentous game, he wondered about its potential as a drama. “But when I read about poor Dónal Caniffe [the then captain of Munster] whose father [former leading hurler, Dan Caniffe] died during the game, that kind of lifted it out of just being a play about sports. I realised that the game could be a metaphor for life.”

Rugby lends itself to drama in a way that soccer and hurling doesn’t, says Breen. “If you think about a rugby match, it’s quite structured. You have line-outs, scrums and mauls. There are lots of set pieces that can be dramatised. Soccer and hurling are more fluid.”

The challenge for the actors is to be “really specific. They have to switch roles on the turn of a penny so that there could be a New Zealand rugby player one second and an old guy in the crowd the next. There is no set and no props; just a little bit of lighting. Basically, the actors’ bodies do it all.”

For the first time, comedian Eleanor Tiernan stars in the play. She plays Moss Keane, All Black, Gary Knight and a character called Mary. Mary gives birth to twins during the game. Her husband, who should have been at the birth, attends the match. Breen, who is the artistic director of Second Age Theatre Company, is directing the production under the auspices of his own company, Gyre and Gimble Productions in association with Verdant Productions. He says he experienced pressure to come up with another hit play. “I suppose it’s like that difficult second album. But I have written four plays since and I tried to make them as different from each as I possibly could.”

One of these plays is Charlie, which dramatises the life of Charles Haughey and looks metaphorically at his relationship with the Irish people. “I tried to write it from Haughey’s world view and I suppose some people felt that in doing that, I was letting him off too lightly.”

Breen has just written an opera which he hopes will be produced in a year or two. He is also working on a version of The Quiet Man with Mikel Murfi.

Breen has written a number of drafts of a screenplay of Alone It Stands but isn’t happy with them. He hopes that some day the play will transfer to a TV drama. He still loves working on it and continues to “laugh at my own jokes”.

Rugby is even more popular now than it was when Breen wrote his play. “Ireland and Munster did me lots of favours in January. Hopefully, if people are feeling good about rugby, that will encourage them to come and see the show.”

*Alone It Stands is at the Everyman Palace Cork from Feb 18-23 followed by a short tour that takes in the Olympia Theatre in Dublin, Carlow, Mullingar, Galway and Limerick.

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