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Stage Struck

Peter Crawley - Irish Times

The theatre is not a courtroom, says PETER CRAWLEY 

PERHAPS THE stage ought to carry a legal disclaimer; something like the movie industry’s “Any resemblance to real persons, living or dead, is purely coincidental.”

It’s unlikely that this would have saved one of the stars of Anglo: The Musical from the chop, a puppet replica of former Anglo Irish Bank chief Seán FitzPatrick, which was dropped from the show following legal advice. It would have been an appropriately satirical way for the producers to cover their assets, but solicitors for FitzPatrick felt that it might prejudice the criminal case against him if we saw him portrayed as a giant, singing muppet.

The producers of the show immediately complied. But couldn’t they have just changed his name?

Take the case of Johnny Silvester. Ten years ago, lawyers at the Moriarty Tribunal became hugely concerned with this character, the disgraced former taoiseach in Sebastian Barry’s play Hinterland, who has a suspiciously amassed fortune, a taste for expensive Parisian shirts and a gossip-columnist mistress. Any resemblance to Charles J Haughey seemed purely intentional.

Haughey’s lawyers requested the script and attended a performance. The Abbey braced itself.Nothing happened.

Can you get around libel laws if “only the names have been changed”? Probably not. But this raises another question: Why put real and recognisable figures onstage?

The most persuasive answer, as Hamlet will tell you, is revenge. In his most elaborate scheme, the prince recreates his father’s murder onstage because he’s heard that guilty creatures at a play have “been struck so to the soul that presently/they have proclaim’d their malefactions”. (To this day, Shakespearian scholars still wonder why Claudius’s lawyers never request the script.)

But Hamlet is hardly the only theatre maker to have engaged in such wishful thinking. An intriguing and problematic example is Donal O’Kelly’s new play, Ailliliú Fionnuala, about the Shell Corrib gas project. A fictitious treatment of a real subject, combining myth and imagination, it also involves the real case of Willie Corduff, who was allegedly assaulted during a peaceful protest. The circumstances around that event are still troublingly unconfirmed, but O’Kelly’s play imagines eyewitness testimony and even an admission of culpability. It’s hard to imagine any Shell executive in the house being struck to the soul.

Without consulting legal advice, my guess is that it’s a sign – in all cases – of intense frustration. When real answers are endlessly delayed or justice is stubbornly elusive, we begin to imagine them.

Satire, after all, turns theatre into a sort of courtroom, without the counterbalance of defence, confirming our darkest suspicions. That isn’t justice, though. That’s a show trial. Case closed.

Posted Date: 
20 November 2012