Sounds like a strange juxtaposition; mingling the imagery of the H block protests of Republican prisoners with the imagined plight of a historical royal, the furthest from Republican you can imagine. But it worked.
I hadn’t seen a Shakespeare play since my Leaving Cert, I’m ashamed to admit, but the language of Richard II – much of it rhyming and all of it beautiful – is surprisingly accessible, and the production by Ourobouros at the Everyman was stylish and crisp, making the context easily understood.
The play focuses on a foolish, foppish king surrounded by flatterers and false friends. Greedy and unjust decisions to first banish his cousin Lord Bolingbroke and then to dispossess him – to fund a vainglorious war in Ireland – lead to his downfall.
The production is one of the first aimed specifically at opening a cultural and political discussion around where we are as a country approaching the 100th anniversary of 1916.
The dethronement of an unjust king is almost a direct analogy to Ireland’s throwing off the shackle of British rule, but as always in a heroic story, it’s the bit that comes afterwards that raises questions. What happens after the good guy wins? And is he still the good guy?
Most people accept that for the status quo to change, there must be turbulence. Ireland achieved its independence only after a blood sacrifice. Bolingbroke reaches the throne after ruthlessly dispatching the king’s supporters – the fingernail-pulling scene elicited squeals from a group of schoolgirls sitting near us – and leaving him isolated.
But what happens to he who carries out the blood sacrifice – war, executions, assassinations, torture – for ‘the greater good’?
Does it change him for the worse? Is it power that corrupts, or the crimes committed on the road to power? Does this, by definition, mean that those in power are corrupt by virtue of having reached that position?
The play ends with a servant of Bolingbroke reading the new king’s mixed messages to understand he wants the deposed Richard dead, and killing him. Bolingbroke denies intending this, understanding that now he is no better than what preceded him.
Almost 100 years after Easter 1916, our colonial rulers have been replaced, ostensibly by our own choice of elected government. But, in the compromises they’ve made to get into power, have they too been subject to the corruption that made the previous injustice so hard to bear?
In the context of the government’s current role as custodians of the troika’s plans for Ireland, it raises some uncomfortable questions.