march 2019 | Volume 177
Most of what I know about the Irish struggle for independence, especially the events around the Easter 1916 Dublin uprising, come from W.B. Yeats’ poetry. Joan Bryans’ new documentary play, Changed Utterly, takes its title from Yeats’ poem “Easter 1916.” Referring to the Irish nationalists who partook in that failed revolutionary moment, he writes that they were “changed, changed utterly:/A terrible beauty is born.”
Bryans focusses on one particular member of the movement, Countess Constance Markievicz, an Anglo-Irish woman born Constance Gore-Booth who moved to London, married a Polish count, then returned to Dublin to join the revolution. Yeats celebrated her—sort of—in two poems, including “Easter 1916”: “That woman’s days were spent/In ignorant good-will,/Her nights in argument/Until her voice grew shrill.”
As in her other feminist plays, Bryans recuperates her heroine’s reputation from its relative obscurity as well as from the kind of sexist portrait that Yeats’ poem has left to posterity. The Constance who emerges from this play is an extraordinary, intrepid woman who organized, fought, was captured, condemned to die, served time in an English prison (her death sentence was commuted), got elected as a Sinn Fein candidate to the new Irish parliament, and proved anything but ignorant or shrill.
But she isn’t changed utterly. In Naomi Wong’s wonderfully radiant performance, this Constance never really changes at all. With her posh English accent, her pistols and fancy hat, from first to last she’s indomitable. “The battle is lost but the future is ours,” she says confidently from prison after the uprising has been crushed. And “no one has it in their power to make me unhappy.”
Other standouts in the cast of twelve include Kurtis Maguire as revolutionary organizer James Larkin, and Gordon Law as both Larkin’s successor James Connolly and harsh English judge Sir George Maxwell. Jeremy Driscoll does a nice job reciting Yeats’ poetry. Carolyn Costigan, Breanne Doyle, Alyssa Hanson-Smith, Celeste Musseau and Lindsay Nelson play the other women in Constance’s circle, the latter as Maud Gonne, the unrequited love of Yeats’ life.
In attempting to capture all the major political events in this complex, eventful period in Irish history as Constance experienced them, Bryans’ script tends to sacrifice dramatic impact for information and exposition. Not even the songs, arranged by musical director Pat Unruh and sung without instrumental accompaniment, do much to bump up the theatrical energy. In her director’s hat Bryans needs to tighten up the entrances, exits and cues.
But with its vivid portrait and performance of Constance Markievicz, Changed Utterly has given me a whole new perspective on the Irish independence movement and the part women played in it. As well, I’ll never be able to read Yeats the same way again.
get in touch with vancouverplays:
Vancouver's arts and culture website providing theatre news, previews and reviews