THE human face of war and what happens to a deeply traumatised soldier when he returns home to Limerick after the First World War is explored in On the Wire, a newly-devised piece of theatre from Wildebeest Theatre Company.
The play, directed by Terry O’Donovan, is a promenade piece that takes place in the Sailor’s Home on Limerick’s O’Curry Street as part of the Limerick City of Culture programme.
The central character, Jack, is a sort of everyman. “We’ve created him from scratch,” says O’Donovan. “We’ve based him on different stories we’ve read. Jack worked for a time in a toffee factory in Limerick. It was suggested to him that he go off and fight in the war. But it has a bad effect on him.”
The play uses flashback scenes whereby war memories seep into Jack’s daily life. He can’t get rid of them. At one point, Jack hears a noise in one of the rooms of the house and checks it out. “This leads to a scene in a trench. His wife comes in and interrupts him. He tries to be normal but as the play goes on, Jack becomes more and more distressed.”
Historian, Eamonn T Gardiner, was consulted for the play which is inspired by real-life stories of Limerick people who fought in the war and those who were left behind. Archival material is used including old photographs and diary entries.
“One of the stories we focus on is post traumatic stress disorder. That struck a chord with me. You don’t often hear the stories of the soldiers who come back from war. There were no psychological services available to these men. We’re keen to make the play relevant to today as wars are still happening in the world and people don’t always think about the consequences of the horrific things that happen.”
O’Donovan points out that Irish soldiers fighting in World War 1 were not seen as war heroes, unlike in Britain. “Fighting with the British Army was not something to be massively proud about.”
As well as the fictional character of Jack, a father of a seven-year-old boy, some characters in the play are based on real people.
“There’s Patrick Downey, who was a young lad of probably about 17, who hoodwinked his way into the army. He had a sad fate. Then there’s Fr Gleeson of the Munster Fusiliers who was a Tipperary man. There’s a wonderful painting of him by Fortunino Matania, he’s on horseback giving absolution to the troops. He’s quite a key character. As well as Jack’s wife, the other female character is the mother of the character based on Patrick Downey.”
Gardiner sent the playwright reams of papers to read on post traumatic stress, shell shock as well as the kind of war slang that would have been used at the time. “He has helped us to generate the feeling of what things were like back then.”
UK-based O’Donovan, originally from Limerick, specialises in site specific theatre. “I like working in unexpected locations and involving the audience. There is a desire among audiences for something different, for intimate immersive work where they feel they’re part of the experience rather than just sitting back.”
The Sailor’s Home “is a beautiful building” dating from 1857. It was originally a place for sailors to dock. It is empty now having been used over the years as a garda station and a training depot. Shannon Foynes, the port dock company that owns the building, cleaned it up and last year, it was used for an art exhibition.
“We’re looking at the building as kind of the grave of Jack. It’s a bit like a character itself. The building is full of memories.”
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