One-woman show gives a compelling and nuanced account of Ireland a century ago
In Hanna Sheehy Skeffington, Ailis Duff played the eponymous suffragette from her arrival at university in 1899, to the aftermath of the Easter Rising.
As the play unfolds, the audience sees her move from youthful enthusiasm and zeal for the cause of women’s suffrage to a woman who is trying to stick to her principles in the face of ever more terrifying challenges.
The staging is simple: pallets arranged in a circle which Duff rearranges throughout the play to serve as soap boxes, a dock, her prison cell and then her home as the violence of the Easter Rising and then the subsequent crackdown by the British military rages outside.
Occasional use is made of back projection: photos of the real Hanna, her husband Frank Sheehy Skeffington, of the arrests of suffragettes and of the Easter Rising. Projection screens can often be jarring in theatrical productions, but it is used excellently here: both grounding Hanna’s story as that of a real person, but also, in one moving sequence, displaying newspaper pictures of the Easter rising while the sound of gunfire plays, adding an immediacy to what is shown.
Ailis Duff is excellent: she entirely convinces as Hanna, both when her exuberance is played as comic (for example, launching into a detailed, vehement defence of her right to protest when in fact her interlocutor has only asked for her name), and later in the play when she and her husband both face huge costs for sticking to their principles.
A particularly effective scene is when she is first imprisoned in Mountjoy jail, and tries to emphasis her relative comfort, keeping up a front of optimism first to the audience and then to her visiting husband, as her worries about her family’s wellbeing and her own show through the cracks.
The lapses in time between scenes are bridged by Hanna singing songs about the suffrage movement and Irish independence, and she repeats one verse of ‘All Around My Hat I’ll Wear The Green and Orange Ribbon’ throughout the play, at first youthful and optimistic, later near despair, and finally defiantly, as she has lost a great deal but continued to fight for what she believes in.
Given it is the centenary of the Easter Rising, it is refreshing that Rosalind Scanlon’s writing portrays Hanna’s reaction to the Rising as complicated: a brief flash of exhilaration at seeing the Irish flag unfurled for the first time, followed by horror at the violence and how it conflicts with the Sheehy Skeffington’s pacifist principals, and then by a brilliantly realised series of scenes of the fear induced by martial law and the curfew.
All in all, the play portrays a complicated, passionate woman who achieved a considerable amount in turbulent times, and does so in an interesting and innovative way. Both Scanlon’s writing and Duff ’s performance are nuanced and moving, and we look forward to seeing what else they might do in the future.
• Sheehy Skeffington: Reminiscences Of An Irish Suffragette, written and Directed By Roslaind Scanlon, starring Ailis Duff
Production: Irish Repertory Theatre Company UK in association with the Irish Cultural Centre in Hammersmith
Venue: The Tabard Theatre, Chiswick 19-24 July and on tour soon.