David Hennessy spoke to the director and cast of TC Murray’s Birthright as Finborough Theatre stage the ‘forgotten masterpiece of Irish theatre’ in London for the first time in more than 90 years.
TC Murray’s Birthright is at The Finborough Theatre for its first London production in more than 90 years. Set in rural Cork just before the First World War, Birthright is the story of Bat and Maura Morrissey and their two sons.
Bat and Maura have two fine – but very different – sons. Hugh is idealistic and accomplished. He is an altar boy, poet, captain of the hurling team, and the pride of his mother.
On the other hand Shane is a born farmer – diligent, obedient, and hardworking.
Much to Bat’s frustration, tradition dictates that Hugh, the eldest, should take over the farm, whilst Shane will be forced to emigrate to America.
Over the course of one day, family ambition collides with Hugh’s birthright, and the close-knit family is torn apart.
Inspired by the biblical story of Esau and Jacob, Birthright is described as ‘a forgotten masterpiece of Irish theatre’.
The play was first performed in the Abbey Theatre, Dublin, in 1910 and was playwright T. C. Murray’s Abbey Theatre debut.
Cork dramatist T. C. Murray has been described as ‘the voice of rural Ireland’.
The piece was last seen in London at the Everyman Theatre, Hampstead in 1931.
The Irish World spoke to director Scott Hurran, Pádraig Lynch and Rosie Armstrong, who play Bat and Maura Morrissey, and Aidan McGleenan who plays the neighbour Dan Hegarty as they started their rehearsals.
It is described as a masterpiece but why has it been forgotten?
“I like to think I know about this stuff,” Pádraig says. “But I’d never heard of him.
“When I read the play, all sorts of things fell into place. He really was a forgotten gem and it’s really great that Scott and the Finborough are bringing it back because that shows how good it is. One hundred years later, it is so relevant.
“It toured to America and it had a huge influence on someone like Eugene O’Neill, and when I read it, I thought, ‘This is like Desire under the Elms’, it has that atmosphere. So I think it’s very exciting to be doing this.
“I don’t doubt the audiences will come out with the same perspective because they will know a lot of the kind of the landmarks of Irish theatre, the O’Caseys and the Synges etc.
“The brief that I gave the design team was,
‘How can we create a space where
the audience get a seat at the table?”
“But really if it hadn’t been for TC Murray, perhaps they wouldn’t have been able to write with such craft because he’s a great writer and it’s a brilliantly crafted play.”
Rosie adds: “And when you look at a great play like The Field by John B Keane, which was written a lot later, you think Keane must have read this. You can see there’s a heritage there of storytelling.”
Aidan says: “It was confusing to me as to why it hadn’t been produced for so long. It just reads so well, the dialogue and everything’s so natural. It’s a great story.”
Director Scott says: “I get really interested in plays that happen at a political moment of time, but I’m really interested in the small community that exists within that.
“the kind of play that sort of focuses in and isn’t necessarily a play that is labouring itself over politics but exists for a particular group of people at a moment in time.
“And for this play, it really does fit that structure because it pretty much exists in real time and we’re just encountering this family for one particular moment.
“The play is just over an hour and it is a pressure cooker, to say the least of driving towards this moment of their son leaving.
“It is really interesting in terms of generations of men and what it means to own land or to provide for your family or to build up your own business and how that hasn’t really ever disappeared.
“I think that’s a really interesting conversation to be having now how those generations differ so that was the main reason that I wanted to work on the play.
“It’s just really interesting that no one knows about this piece of work.”
There is perhaps some symmetry in the play with the local affair of the contention over the farm and the war brewing in Europe.
Pádraig says: “Terence McSwiney, TC Murray and Daniel Corkery were known as the Cork realists: Again something I hadn’t known. I mean, McSwiney was to go on and die of hunger strike in Brixton prison. He wanted to be a playwright. I’m not sure he wanted to be a martyr. I hope he didn’t.
“But that was his journey, whereas TC Murray, in this play manages to capture those tensions- and I’m not even talking about nationalism really, I’m talking about generational tensions- how my generation, the character I play, isn’t interested really in anything but farming on the land and putting food on the table.
“But my sons and the community around me are changing and they’re looking for what I would consider these strange notions: Abstract things, hurling even, football, speaking Irish..
“I probably spoke Irish myself, my character, as a child but I don’t see it as anything of any value, whereas this whole new generation are coming forward, and I’m almost in a world I don’t recognise. I think that’s what happened.
“I remember as a child, because I’m from Dublin but I spent a lot of time in Cork and Kerry where my people are from, I kind of got that sense, that the land, that’s really what farmers were interested in.
“The rest of it, to some extent is – not nonsense but it’s – not real. And it’s interesting that that kind of happened in Ireland at that time.
“I mean the First World War comes along and changes everything. What you see is a moment of life.”
“One of the brilliant things about it is the rhythm and the structure that it’s written in is so tight at that tragedy is just constantly creeping up on you”
Rosie continues: “There’s tradition of the oldest one always inheriting. Well, if the younger one is more adept at being a farmer, should that tradition be turned around? Bat’s very kind of logical about that and I think Maura thinks in terms of the natural order of things.”
How interested is Hugh even in the farming?
Rosie answers: “He has other interests and we’ve been having this – I’m not going to say argument – We’ve been having this discussion in the rehearsal room about how committed Hugh is to the farm or not.
“He mentions that he works six days on the farm. Well, that’s a big commitment in many people’s eyes.
“But the fact he doesn’t work seven days on the farm to his father means he’s falling short.”
Hugh is the ‘pride of his mother’, is there a blatant favouring of him over Shane?
“I think the audience will have different sympathies,” Rosie says. “And maybe from their own experience, they will kind of go, ‘I can see it from her point of view’. Or, ‘I can see it from his point of view’.
“It’s really interesting trying to find out where the truth lies and I think at this early stage in rehearsal we’re not even sure ourselves what’s manipulation and what is genuine. It’s very interesting.”
Aidan continues: “I wonder if these same characters just had a different profession…
“What Bat has spent his entire life doing is building this thing and tradition dictates you hand it to your oldest son.
“It’s not just the future generations, it’s what he’s personally put into it, this hard life and built it up as much as he can.
“If they had the freedom to have different professions or if that tradition wasn’t there and he could hand it to his youngest son, it might have freed him up to be more forgiving of his older son who is someone he should really be proud of.”
Scott says: “Often these days, we look at plays that deal with masculinity or want to talk about masculinity from a certain point of view.
“Maura is the only woman in the play and on our first day, one of the questions I was asking was, ‘Where are all the other women in this play and in this world and community that we’re trying to create on stage?’
“But something that really interests me is that TC Murray has depicted these four men, who are very different in the play and all are successful in their own way, whether that is personally or how they are looked upon by their community or how people observe them or talk about them.
“What is really, really interesting for me in this sort of period of time is what it means to be a man, a lot of that conversation is around ownership and pride.
“And sometimes, talking about land ownership as being the most important part of Bat’s history but there are other parts like Hugh being known as a great player and is used in the community to kind of give people something to aspire to.
“And one of Dan’s lines right at the beginning is – He’s got two young kids, If any of his kids grow up to be anything like Hugh, that would be amazing.
“And so there are these real different sections of what it means to be a man at this moment in time.
“It is really interesting in terms of generations of men and what it means to own land or to provide for your family or to build up your own business and how that hasn’t really ever disappeared.”
“For me it’s really interesting to see Murray depict it and generation plays a massive part in that, the changing times.”
Aidan is from the Lake District with family in Armagh while Pádraig is from Dublin.
Rosie grew up very near to where the action is set. I grew up in West Cork,” she says.
“Macroom is mentioned in the play and I grew up about 50 miles west of Macroom so this world is very familiar to me. I hadn’t heard of the play.
“[But] I’d worked with Scott very briefly and I saw he was doing this at the Finborough. I didn’t know it was set in County Cork, I just knew it was set in rural Ireland.
“I reached out to Scott and expressed an interest in it and then when he sent me the play and I read it, I couldn’t believe it was set so near to where I grew up. I just had to be involved then.
“I suppose the big difference for me is in Irish history.
“I know about the famine and I know about the Easter Rising, and there’s this period in between that I don’t know about, and that’s when this play is set.
“So it’s great to sort of do the research for it and find out how Ireland’s changing during this time.”
Pádraig adds: “It’s interesting because the whole problem of Ireland had been resolved, it seemed. The Land League had achieved its aims so for someone like Bat, that’s it. Anything beyond that is of no real interest to me. The Land League was the big thing, the big movement to take the land back from the landlords.
“For someone like Bat, that’s what nationalism is. It’s the land, the right to use the land for yourself, cultivate the land for yourself.
“What was important to someone like me, a farmer, was the land and I didn’t really care what was going on in Dublin or London, or even Macroom. This is my patch.
“And I was ready to die for it, that’s what I find fascinating.
“Being a ‘grabber’ is a great insult. Calling someone a ‘grabber’.
“Back in the famine which only happened in this play in the last generation, a lot of land was grabbed after the famine from people who died or emigrated, so that’s always been a thing even in Kerry where my people were from.
“There was an implication, I remember, that the farm was ‘grabbed’. And Jesus, you wouldn’t want to say that to someone’s face. I make that insinuation about a family, that they’re ‘grabbers’.”
Rosie continues: “The themes are still relevant to today.
“It’s a period piece but I think people will recognise the family dynamic and they will recognise the issues and the conflict.”
Does it feel like an honour to bring the play back to London after so many years?
“It really, really, really does,” Pádraig says.
“And particularly because a lot of Irish people ended up in London, rural people, so there’s a connection with rural Ireland that there isn’t anywhere else.”
Sean O’Casey is reported to have said he didn’t like to watch TC Murray’s plays because their unrelieved tragedy affected him too deeply, and he inserted numerous humorous touches into his own plays as a result.
Is there a sense of tragedy in this piece?
Scott says: “I think one of the brilliant things about it is the rhythm and the structure that it’s written in is so tight at that tragedy is just constantly creeping up on you.
“I can totally imagine when you get immersed into this, that it leaves you with a really, without spoiling it, tragic ending to the play that is unresolved.
“TC Murray kind of cuts you off at that point.
“I feel that an audience will really be left questioning everything that just happened over the last hour and 15 minutes.
“We were talking the other day and Rosie came up with this brilliant thought, that no one is right in this play and actually, there is tragedy written within each character as well as just the events of the play.
“The tragedy isn’t overwhelming, it creeps up on you.”
Aidan adds: “It’s unusual for it to be a tragedy of the scale that it gets to with it being such a short play.
“Usually it needs to build up but I think it manages it so well due to the strength of the writing, and the strength of dialogue.
“You just get such a strong sense of character so quickly, it helps people invest in them so that the tragedy is really strong.”
Rosie continues: “The other great thing is that in the original production, they had an interval.
“I think not having one helps with the pressure cooker nature of it perhaps.”
Is the intimate space of the Finborough the perfect setting for such an intimate play?
“The brief that I gave the design team was, ‘How can we create a space where the audience get a seat at the table?’
“So the audience is going to be really close to the action.
“They are going to be in it so as soon as they walk into the Finborough, they feel like they’re walking through the front door into the farmhouse.”