The starting point for Michael West’s new play, in this joint production by Corn Exchange and the Abbey, is an alternative, though highly familiar, 1970s Ireland. You know, elections every few weeks, bad suits, wide ties, and a seedy nexus of politics and property development. His plot points echo planning tribunals, the phone tapping and ‘calls to the Aras’ scandals,and our national disdain for builtheritage and culture in general.
By the end, however, we are in anentirely different country, as the democratic institutions are bent to the will of Andrew Bennett’s Taoiseach, Manny Spillane. He starts out looking like Garret Fitzgerald and acting like Charles Haughey but ends up a president for life in a totalitarian state.
It’s quite a jump. And we get there from a humdrum starting point: a bit of good old Irish cultural vandalism in the service of crony capitalism. The Theatre Royal in this Dublin is burned by Spillane’s cronies as it stands in the way of the Irish Banking Centre, his “legacy”. The excellent Caitriona Ennis plays Emer Hackett, a hack-ette, as it were, for the Freeman’s Journal, who exposes the corruption, though she’s frustrated by the sexism and timidity of her paper. Eventually, she runs the story, inciting a crackdown worthy of the old Soviet Bloc.
As the madcap pace ramps up, it’s not only Ireland that threatens to spin out of control, it’s the play itself. The two worlds, of Hackett and her reporting, and the cartoonish parody of tinpot dictatorships, fail to find their own grand coalition. For Hackett, events, we feel, have weight and consequence. Around Leinster House, events become a broad, frenetic satire; plausibility is not a consideration.
A play divided against itself like this should not stand. In the end, it wobbles, but just about holds together. Annie Ryan’s direction elevates the action above straightforward naturalism with flourishes of movement. Declan Conlon’s drunken Tánaiste is a hoot, while the ensemble playing of numerous grotesques and buffoons adds great colour. West, meanwhile, rarely lets up with well-aimed jokes and word play. It’s enough to ensure The Fall of the Second Republic is never dull, very funny, and hugely entertaining.