Socialist Countess


Emma Woods, as Constance Markievicz, about to raise the banner of the Irish Republic.

Theatre Review by Frances Devlin-Glass

A Name for Herself: A rebel Irish countess fights for women & freedom by Meg McNena, Directed by Lynda Fleming, Renaissance Theatre, Kew, 13 March 2021

The research elicited by the centenary of the Easter Rising resulted in a heightened consciousness of the very active role played by women in the rebellion, and Meg McNena’s play keeps the momentum going.

A Name for Herself focusses on the revolutionary moments in the life of a very feisty rebel, Constance Markievicz, née Gore-Booth of Lissadell, a grand house in Sligo. Early in the play, she is represented as having a moment of insight in hearing a song about a Famine coffin-ship, the Pomona, wrecked just off the coast, near Lissadell House in 1859. On the ship were tenants of her grandfather, victims of his land-clearing enterprise. From this point on, she is on the rocky road from socialite to  socialist, and active participation in the freedom struggle as a follower of James Connolly and the Irish Citizen Army’s socialist agendas. In addition, she was an activist for women’s suffrage, and would become the first woman to be elected to Westminster (she refused to take her seat).

Meg McNena has tackled an epic subject, with strands very familiar to Irish and Irish-Australian audiences. The Director, Lynda Fleming, has chosen to do it in a (mostly) non-epic way with a cast of four and in a theatre that was perhaps not ideal for the purpose (because rather too large and the action was blocked mainly upstage). I’d love to see this play in a more intimate theatre, and perhaps on a thrust stage, with audience much closer than was possible in the Renaissance Theatre (Kew High School). The epic strand sits rather uncomfortably alongside a more domestic one (which could have been blocked downstage) which looks at the tensions between Constance and her rather more conventional sister, Eva (though a woman who witnessed her solidarity with Roger Casement by sitting through his explosive trial could hardly be called conventional). But this contrast between the sisters is useful as a microcosmic reflection of a macrocosm which did not, until recently, accord women the same status as warriors as men. Women bravely carried the Republican enterprise by not just feeding and nursing the men, but (like Margaret Skinnider, who gets a guernsey in the play) transported explosives (in her big Edwardian hat, in Margaret’s case) and guns under their skirts, carried and used weapons, sometimes skilfully as snipers, took crucial messages, and the risks attendant on surrender.  It was no mean feat to locate the personal angst and suggest enough of the epic overtones of the Rising with just four actors, three of which doubled as five very different characters.

The staging was simple: a large bare stage, an evocative lighting plot by Shane Grant that shifted from a red palette to a green one, two chairs and a table, a prison camp stretcher, and very little else. One wonders if archival film footage exists of the return of prisoners to Dublin, and whether, if it does, that or the photos that do exist might have been projected to good effect. I applaud the simplicity of the staging (feeling that mainstream theatres often give undue weight to fussy hyper-realistic sets) but wonder if the offstage singing of Comhaltas might have been louder and supplemented visually.

Constance was very well cast: the statuesque, athletic, commanding Emma Woods represented Con as a driven, larger-than-life character who took courage from childhood tales of Mebh, warrior Queen of Connaught from the Ulster epic, Táin Bó Cúailnge. High-spirited and very histrionic in voice and gesturally, she delighted in demonstrating her proficiency as a horse-manager and shooter, and later these skills translated to training in gunmanship the Fianna, the nationalist boy scouts she commanded in St Stephen’s Green in 1916. It’s not hard to sell such a charismatic character in our age, but its counter-cultural complexion in its actual historical context is made clear by the comparison with Eva, her younger sister. What is, however, much harder to sell to a contemporary audience is her insistence with her captors that her own execution was preferable to the life her sister worked so hard to secure for her. However, truth-telling, and it is, pushes into melodrama when represented as more than a passing disappointment. 

One of the satisfying comic moments in the play is Meg McNena’s unromantic, and also truthful treatment of Yeats. Yeats is represented in this play as initially infatuated with the Gore-Booth sisters and inclined to flirt with Con and admire Eva (played with warmth and her own kind of gentler feistiness by Cheryl Walsh). The play touches on the writing of his great poem, ‘Easter 1916’, and his ambivalence about Con’s part in the Rising. Having demonstrated his uncertainty as the poem was unfolding, McNena pushes into deserved criticism with a focus on Yeats’s demonising of Con in that poem. Yeats was even more stridently critical of her in a poem which was published in 1921 (written in 1919 when Yeats was disillusioned with Irish politics and its revolutionary turn), ‘On a Political Prisoner’, accusing her mind of having become ‘bitter, an abstract thing’. It was a theme to which he would return even more bitterly in 1933.  It seems, for Yeats, women had no right to be strident, independent, thoughtful or ‘abstract’, their own persons. He was conventional enough to prefer the Con and Eva of his memory safely imprisoned in amber: 

Great windows open to the south,
Two girls in silk Kimonos, both
Beautiful, one a gazelle.

(from ‘In Memory of Eva Gore-Booth and Con Markievicz’)

Yeats was far from being a feminist. He was played with more sang froid than I imagine he owned by Mark Tregonning, who depicted him as arrogant, dismissive of women as political activists, and as a bit of a fop. However, his poetry and in particular the prison poem, suggested to poet/playwright, Meg McNena, one of the gentlest symbols of the play : Con’s desire for a bird’s quill to write with while in solitary confinement. It also suggested a question to initiate a whimsical exchange with the prison chaplain, Fr Cuthbert: ‘who is the patron saint of birds?’ The priest ranges through a few (St Kevin, St Francis, St Gall), but she is in search of a woman, and hopes Joan of Arc might cut the mustard. She doesn’t. But she does suggest another avatar of the warrior woman to Con.

Stephen Mitchell had a raft of very different roles to master: he played the Anglo-Irish father of Con and Eva, General Maxwell, who had emergency powers to quell the insurgency and arrogated the power of life and death over the prisoners, and as well, and in his most beguiling role, that of Fr Cuthbert, the priest who was supportive of the rebels. The latter character engaged in smart dialogue with Con who, from her prison cell after the rebellion, sought somewhat precipitously to convert to Rome. He is both tender and firm, and no pushover in the hands of this assertive woman, and is not prepared, for the sake of an extra convert, to do her bidding. Their burgeoning relationship is a delight. Con did eventually get baptised, an act that was important as part of a suite of manoeuvres by which she forsook her class and identified with those she would later serve as a public figure in the newly formed Dáil Éireann

The costs were high for the cerebral Constance Markiewicz, and the play hints at these, but does not follow through. Emma Woods’s Constance has a softer side which could easily and warmly compassionate with others’ losses, so it was a bit surprising to learn of her own child, ironically called Maeve, from whom she estranged herself by refusing to see her in jail, allegedly (in this play) out of vanity. Maeve, by 1916 was 15 and was never brought on board with the revolution, as happened in other families, so there may be a tale to be told about this. It felt like unfinished business, or maybe the risk of going down a ‘bad mother’ path was too high for Meg McNena, in a play that was sympathetic to the mothers of the revolution.

This play fascinatingly recreates Irish history through the lens of women’s experience, and being produced, after the long year of being shut out of theatres, between International Women’s Day and St Pat’s, it enacts both celebratory and critical perspectives and garnered big audiences at its performances on 13 March. I hope the play gets another season, even a touring season, in a more intimate theatre.

Frances Devlin-Glass

Frances is a member of the Tinteán collective, and has been a theatre critic since the early 1980s and a Literary Studies academic for longer than she cares to admit.