The Republican banners were out, at the Tron on Friday night, for the first Glasgow performance of Connolly, a new 90-minute solo play by writer-director Martin McCardie and his actor brother Brian, presented as part of the Tron’s Mayfesto festival.
Connolly | Tron Theatre, Glasgow | Rating ***
Born in Edinburgh in 1868, James Connolly was one of the great leaders of the Easter 1916 Rising in Dublin, a labour organiser who passionately believed in an Irish Republic as the only way to win social justice, along with equal rights for men and women.
The play, though, offers no simple, rousing call to arms. Over three scenes – on the eve of the rebellion, at the height of the fighting around the General Post Office, and in the hours before Connolly’s execution at Kilmainham Jail – it offers a portrait of Connolly as a brave leader, but also a passionate family man, and a writer and thinker with a fine sense of the absurd, including his own moments of absurdity.
The choice to emphasise both the subtlety of Connolly’s character, and the horrific suffering he faced in the days before his death, is a difficult one in terms of theatre; Brian McCardie’s performance, while spell-bindingly intense, is often so inward and meditative, and so uncertain in pace, that it becomes hard to follow.
If the show offers a strange mix of brilliant intensity and performative difficulty, though, it is still utterly memorable; not least because of the powerful contemporary images used as a backdrop, the suite of republican songs beautifully sung by Maeve Mackinnon that introduces the show, and the strength of the political and emotional response that Connolly’s story still provokes, exactly a century after his death.