Saturday, October 1, 2016

Oisín McKenna, 'Gays Against the Free State!': The Full Picture

Liberation means assimilation in this thoughtful portrayal of post-Marriage Equality Ireland. Photo: Matthew Mulligan.

Smock Alley Theatre, Tiger Dublin Fringe Festival
Sep 21-24

A quick review of Gays Against the Free State! by Oisín McKenna coming up just as soon as I yell "yaaaasssss" at someone in blackface ...

How does a minority win over a majority? Judging from last year’s Marriage Equality Referendum, to persuade Middle Ireland is to present something it agrees with: gay people who are white, middle-class and monogamous. The less marketable stripes of the rainbow flag are still on the cutting room floor

Oisín McKenna’s provocative new play channels its furies through the subversive sensibilities of queer theatre. In a once-off television debate between two gay politicians, a wily member of government (well judged Leonard Buckley) maintains that everything is fine since Marriage Equality, but the opposition (Sian Ni Mhuiri, a flawless imitation of the anti-establishment) argues that only middle-class experience of gay life has been popularised since the referendum. They’re kept from butting heads by hard-hitting host Miriam O’Callaghan (drag performer Stephen Quinn).

From delightfully queering Ireland’s conservative media (though the impressions of Bláthnaid Ní Chofaigh and Dáithí Ó Sé could use more study), Colm Summers’s slick staging then transports to a Christian Brothers classroom in the Free State era. Eugenia Genuchi’s set cunningly exchanges the fluorescents of an RTÉ studio for a St Brigid’s Cross. In this darker setting, the play hints at the suppression of a revolutionary generation. 

Fascinatingly, McKenna makes the case that even white middle-class gayness is incompatible with Middle Ireland, a revelation that is followed by a stirring song by Quinn, sung over Seamus Ryan’s beautiful keyboards. 

But from then the script becomes a bit crowded, trying to comment on everything from mansplaining to the 1916 commemorations and Waking the Feminists. There are also unresolved questions about the framing of the action, and why the actors are slating the author onstage. 

Still, it’s an important message: those who cannot assimilate cannot be liberated. The full picture is still ignored. 

What did everybody else think?

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