WRITER/PERFORMER Donal O’Kelly comes to the Town Hall Theatre next week with a double bill of plays, Bat the Father, Rabbit the Son, on Monday May 13 and Ailliliú Fionnuala on Tuesday 14.
First performed 25 years ago, Bat the Father, Rabbit the Son announced O’Kelly’s arrival on the Irish theatre scene and marked him out as a rare and distinctive talent. The play introduces us to Rabbit, a haulage magnate up to his neck in the kind of deals destined to define the word “tribunal”, but something is wrong.
Rabbit cuts a deal with his underling Keogh to help him find what’s missing. Rabbit’s quest is hampered by eruptions from his deceased father Bat, former Citizen Army volunteer, who has the power to come back and take over Rabbit’s body at will.
The struggle between father and son, past and present, imagination and reality, spans Dublin. Their crazed voyage builds to a climax described by The New York Post as “A prose poem of magical beauties and plunging vulgarities…purely brilliant.”
“It was my attempt to make sense of the Haughey generation,” O’Kelly observes of the play. “That’s really where the seeds were sown of a lot of our current difficulties. The whole erosion of democratic standards started then and continued with impunity and we are now reaping the rewards of that.
“I thought it would be a good idea to run Bat the Father, Rabbit the Son in tandem with Ailliliú Fionnuala because the Shell/Corrib Gas fiasco is, I think, a microcosm of what has gone wrong with democracy in Ireland over the past few generations. Theatre has a responsibility to play its role in finding our path out of this crisis. Irish theatre needs to react to the situation we find ourselves in, ignoring it is not an option.”
The protagonist of Ailliliú Fionnuala is the same Ambrose Keogh who had been the unseen minion of Rabbit in the earlier play.
“Now, 25 years later, Keogh has gone into senior management and become an executive. He encounters Fionnuala, one of the Children of Lir, and she forces him to tell all he knows about Shell operations in Erris,” O’Kelly explains. “I got interested in the Shell/Corrib Gas controversy after being in Belmullet in 2009 with my play The Cambria. When we were there I heard anti-Shell activist Willie Corduff had been hospitalised. He was supposed to have come to see the play but couldn’t because he was bedridden.
“I went to see him and I saw the state he was in after he’d been attacked. In that moment I decided this sort of thing can’t happen unchallenged. The only skill I have is in making plays so I decided I had the responsibility to write something about what was happening, it’s disgraceful that nobody was ever charged with Willie’s assault.”
Bat the Father, Rabbit the Son includes a backward look to the 1916 era through the character of Bat and O’Kelly’s next play, Skeff, which premieres in Dublin in July, also revisits that period with its exploration of the life and death of Francis Sheehy Skeffington, the pacifist friend of Joyce who was summarily executed during The Easter Rising.
“In Ireland at the moment we’re suffering from a state of paralysis similar to the first decade of the 20th century, that sense of paralysis that drove Joyce away and which he encapsulated so brilliantly in Dubliners and Ulysses,” O’Kelly notes.
“Our overlords are powerless and are carrying out the diktats of unelected bureaucrats who are compelling the Irish people to repay debts we weren’t responsible for, and no-one is pointing and saying the emperor has no clothes. That is what Joyce did in Dubliners and it’s what I am trying to do with these two plays, just suggesting how upside down the world is at the moment.”
Tickets for the plays are €12 each or €20 for both. Ailliliu Fionnuala will be followed by a post-show discussion with journalist Lorna Siggins and film-maker Risteard O’Domhnaill, director of The Pipe.
Tickets are available from the Town Hall on 091 - 569777 and www.tht.ie