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History Play review: Alive to revisionism and the unlit corners of the past

Dublin Theatre Festival 2023: Pan Pan’s nightmare is not that unsettling to awake from

History Play

The Bank, Digital Hub

Which time period would be the most interesting to live in? Early in Pan Pan’s new play, a group of individuals, preposterously dressed like members of the French revolutionary army, ask themselves this question, searching through centuries for answers, as if the company’s artistic directors, Gavin Quinn and Aedín Cosgrove, were trying on Marx’s maxim about history happening twice, the first time as tragedy, the second as farce.

What can afford to be left out, as these chaotic students of history, resembling absurd re-enactors, make crude assumptions about eras? In Ancient Greece, someone observes, people had a nice time eating grapes. Michael Collins is said to be in the same category of culture icon as Madonna. Such funnily shallow exchanges eventually needle towards resonant concerns; when a Ukrainian soldier unfamiliar with Irish history (an eloquently blank Anton Ovchinnikov) discusses his country’s poet Taras Shevchenko, he makes a comment that seems to sideline any artistic successes: “They say he had a lot of women.”

The play – created by the cast with Quinn, Cosgrove and a wealth of collaborators and historians – is alive to revisionism and how it lights the startling, unlit corners of the past. As Faith Jones gives a discreet performance inquiring about archives, and whether to include evidence that might later tarnish a reputation, it opens up questions about how to live in the present. Our own history is encouraged to be an open book; seated inside a kind of classroom, we’re asked on arrival to write a short account of our lives in a notebook at our chair.

Whether in the grimace of a black Irish soldier (a tall and stoic Michael Tient) at suggestions of re-expanding the British Empire, or in Katherine O’Malley’s candid account of how the Civil War republican Ernie O’Malley obliterated 800 years of history in his attack on the Four Courts’ Records Office, the shift between lessons unlearned or lost is shadowy and restless, as if Pan Pan were attempting to stage Joyce’s notion of history as a nightmare from which we are trying to awake.


The tension required to truly frighten is more difficult to achieve. The high-ceilinged expanse of the 19th-century Bank venue may lead the eye to its stunning circular rooflights, but the lack of a lighting rig leaves the production dependent on striplights that, in the slow dreamlike movement of the cast, take a long time to rearrange, allowing suspense to deflate. Decisions towards the conclusion are mysterious: one individual’s wearying outline of history as a long list of ages and eras; the unexplained unfolding of a gigantic plastic tarpaulin; the cryptic sight of the cast stretching their faces as if trying to remove a mask.

The arrival of the historian Robert Gerwath to trace the uneasy aspects of choosing to write a biography of the Nazi Reinhard Heydrich, an architect of the Holocaust, ultimately leads to a more enlightened, compassionate ending. Not that Pan Pan’s nightmare was that unsettling to awake from.

Continues at Digital Hub, as part of Dublin Theatre Festival, until Sunday, October 15th

Chris McCormack

Chris McCormack is a contributor to The Irish Times specialising in culture