By Margaret Darby
Irish Heritage Theatre’s latest production, at Plays and Players, is Brian Friel’s Making History– Friel’s very personal view of the conquest of Gaelic Ireland by Queen Elizabeth I in 1601 at Kinsale.
Friel’s story is not a mere recounting of history, but a personal interpretation – a view of his own internal conflicts about Ireland of the 1980s. The protagonist of the play, Hugh O’Neill (Aodh Móv Ó Néill), was himself a man of conflicts. He was a ward of Giles Hovendon and therefore spent several formative years in England. He was ennobled by Queen Elizabeth I for his service to England, but he later organized the Ulster revolt against England in 1595, which was promptly and cruelly crushed.
Friel shows O’Neill’s dilemma by centering the play on his relationship with his fourth wife, Mabel Bagenal, a Protestant English woman and the sister of his arch enemy, Sir Hugh Bagenal, the Queen’s Marshall. Mabel (Stephanie Iozzia) portrays her innocent confusion when she is introduced to the Bishop of Armagh, Peter Lombard. She is shocked by the reality of being in a house of Papists who are planning to rebel against the Queen and, as a consequence, against her own brother.
Hugh O’Neill (Ethan Lipkin) is played with grandiose charm, holding fast to his love of Ireland yet showing his love for his English wife. He rashly orders Bishop Peter Lombard to ex-communicate anyone who is not siding with the rebels. The broad strokes with which he delivers Friel’s sometimes stultifying historical text provide dramatic tension that keeps the play moving.
O’Neill’s young friend and aide-de-camp, Hugh O’Donnell (Kevin Rodden), is played with youthful brash enthusiasm for war and unwavering faith in his hero. Unfortunately, Director Peggy Mecham failed to get him to stop delivering his lines upstage, so the audience has to take his characterization with limited eye contact and facial expression.
With the able assistance of sharp-eyed Harry Hovedon (Bob Wieck) and scholarly Peter Lombard (John Cannon), the rage of O’Neill and the rashness of O’Donnell are urged to be more circumspect – but even sage guidance cannot prevent their inevitable defeat. What is not inevitable to Brian Friel, however, is how history will judge them.
At the end of the play, Friel expresses this in Peter Lombard’s lines:
‘I don’t believe that a period of history – a given space of time– my life – your life – that it contains within it one “true” interpretation just waiting to be mined. But I do believe that it may contain within it several possible narratives. The life of Hugh O’Neill can be told in many different ways. And those ways are determined by the needs and demands and the expectations of different people and different eras.’
The Irish Heritage Theatre has been brave enough to take on a discussion of truth in this production of Making History. May it serve us well as we search for the truth in our current political environment.
Making History is on stage at Plays and Players Theatre, 1714 Delancey St., Philadelphia through June 10. Wednesday through Saturdays at 7 pm and Sundays at 2 pm. Tickets are $25 for general admission; $20 for seniors, $15 for students; see www.irishheritagetheatre.org.