Guests Of The Nation
Corcadorca and Kevin Barry have brought to life a classic and haunting short story from Frank O'Connor for Cork Midsummer Festival
Anyone passing up or down down South Main Street by the Triskel Arts Centre at 11:12 pm on Wednesday night would have heard the prelude to an execution delivered through a megaphone.
In the Triskel courtyard, just inside the railings - they were covered over so those beyond the fence could hear but not see what was happening - two British soldiers were kneeling, the audience looking up at them, waiting for their captors to pull the trigger.
It was the denouement to Guests Of The Nation, a new adaption by Corcadorca for Cork Midsummer Festival. The play unfolded first in the balcony of Cork Opera House, before moving across town to the Triskel. This was the second time in the staging, directed by Pat Kiernan, that Belcher and Hawkins, would be killed.
The first re-enactment came early on, in the Opera House, as the four protagonists, played by an excellent all-female cast of Gina Moxley, Amy Conroy, Liz Fitzgibbon and Chloe O’Reilly talked through in an almost conversational manner the fateful night in which Belcher and Hawkins met their end.
This rendition of Guests Of The Nation, originally published in 1931, is as much about memory as it is murder. Writer Kevin Barry has opted to start where his counterpart Frank O’Connor ended his haunting short story about the captivity and execution of two British soldiers by two Irish volunteers. It’s a play in three acts and three places. Corcadorca sticks to its well-worked script of immersive theatre, of getting up close to the audience and getting you walking around.
In Barry’s retelling nature, especially the bog, is never far away. It’s dark and dreary, haunted by the piercing sounds of birds and it’s accompanied by a haunting, throbbing soundtrack throughout from Mel Mercier, which can sometimes feel over wrought.
In the first act in the Opera House, the actors cut across each other, finishing each other’s lines. It’s a clever rebuttal to the cliché that history is written by the victors, or even the survivors. Memory, or guilt, fudges and erases what really happened, especially in an event as traumatic as an execution.
The first act establishes the bond between the captors and their keepers: it’s familial, as Hawkins remarks, and it is under Kiernan’s direction. They play cards and call each other chums throughout. But it’s all a pretence, and maybe those bonds only make what has to come worse.
As a title Guests of the Nation has always struck me as a curious and cruel one ever since I first read O’Connor’s story way back in secondary school, but in both O’Connor’s story and in Corcadorca’s retelling, the two British soldiers are given a grand time, for a long time. But death is their host. There’s no escaping it.
When the play restarts after a short walk over to the Triskel, it’s decidedly up-tempo and muss less convivial. Kiernan and Barry have reworked the chronology so that we’re building once more to the execution. The cast is slightly elevated inside a narrow blackened room. It’s hot and uncomfortable; the cast are nominally playing cards. The mood on stage is frenzied with appeals to clemency and explanations of duty; Hawkins repeats over and over that they’re pawns here, they all are. Belcher starts talking about his summer trips to Belmullet in Co. Mayo. There’s a reference to Elton John; the volunteers tell the captors they’ll give them Carlow. It’s a funny line, at Carlow’s expense, but the second act feels slightly unhinged, and perhaps that’s the intended effect, to slap the audience out of the gentle retelling from the first act.
Once more the cast leave, and we follow them outside to the courtyard in front of the church, where the execution is to be staged. Belcher and Hawkins kneel on a stage of sandbags, their heads covered in black hoods. Behind them their captors patrol. Off to the side there’s a small mechanical digger. Where the audience stands, Neo Gilson, Corcadorca artist-in-residence, narrates from O’Connor’s short story.
As a mise en scène, it’s impressive, especially the portico backdrop of Christchurch, but the digger feels jarring, unnecessary.
It’s hard, impossible even, to look at that final scene with the two soldiers, their faces covered over as they kneel and await death, without thinking of the thousands of videos that exist online from the mid-2010s when Isis made gory executions their signature way of spreading fear and engaging with the world.
There’s no cameras trained at the captors at the Triskel; the executions are almost dignified - an acceptance from the captives that they must die, and their captors must carry out their duty.
Three shots ring out on South Main Street. A man in the audience close to me covers his ears. On stage, Hawkins takes a long time to die, twitching about like a “half killed rabbit” until he’s finished with a second bullet.
And then it’s Belcher’s turn to die.
The play closes out with the fateful line from O’Connor’s story delivered by Bonaparte: “And everything that ever happened me after I never felt the same about again.”
It’s an uneven but engrossing retelling of an important and timeless short story.
Guests of the Nation continues on June 24 and 25. Cork Midsummer Festival runs until June 26, more information here.