Operation Easter

Donal O'Kelly used to shy away from history's heroes, but his new play brings the leaders of the Rising to life. Harry Browne sees Operation Easter in rehearsals

Looking back over two decades of intermittent theatre-going in Ireland, only a few shows stand out as greatly original, inventive, thought-provoking and entertaining. Top of the list, and feck the begrudgers, is D'Unbelievables' One Hell of a Do; Passion Machine's Studs is up there too, back when it was a dizzily poetic stage-play rather than a dully prosaic movie.

However, the works that keep coming to mind, the most beautiful, funny, engaged and engaging theatre, are the plays of Donal O'Kelly, especially the multi-character one-man shows such as Bat the Father, Rabbit the Son, Catalpa and even his tourist-friendly lunchtime show, Jimmy Joyced! I loved the plays, and his transformative physical performances of them, before I met the man, who I have got to know a bit, not on the luvvie circuit, but in political-activist circles, where he spends a lot of his spare time.

It's a rare pleasure for me to venture out on a sunny day and see him engaged in his real work like this, in a slightly dilapidated but bright and airy building in the weedy old mental hospital grounds at Grangegorman in Dublin's northwest inner city. Here the rehearsals for his Operation Easter feel like they're miles from anywhere; actually the quicklime graves of the men it memorialises are just a few minutes' walk away, at Arbour Hill.

As I walk into the rehearsal room – past a veritable library of books and clippings about 1916 – Padraig Pearse, James Connolly, Thomas Clarke and Joseph Plunkett are carrying O'Donovan Rossa's coffin. They lay it down, then each bursts in turn from the "graveside" to enact a rapid-fire few minutes of character exposition and background. The Pearse brothers grow from childhood to St Enda's in 60 seconds flat. Arthur O'Riordan as Connolly mimes a pained shovelling action and spits out characteristic rhythmic O'Kelly verse to punctuate his movement: "Horse-shittin' the night-shift, night-shiftin' the horse-shit".

The 48-year-old O'Kelly, playing Thomas Clarke, is just one of the cast, taking direction from his frequent collaborator, Bairbre Ní Chaoimh. He has suddenly become a far cry from the long-haired, long-faced actor who used to joke that his looks and football ability qualified him for the lead whenever producers got around to shooting The Ronnie Whelan Story. His hair is razor-cut above the ears and he sports a grizzled moustache to play the old Fenian leader.

When he comes off stage he tells me that the rest of the play is a bit more naturalistic than the typically O'Kelly/ Ní Chaoimh combination of fluid stagecraft and rhyming verse that I've just witnessed. "Sometimes it's done in verse for speed," he says. "It allows you to get an awful lot of information across in a short space of time."

He is down-to-earth about the realities of his job. "I've tried to engineer it so that I can reach viability writing and performing live theatre. I think I've cracked it, to the point where I can earn the average industrial wage." He turns up with reasonable regularity in films (The Van, Spin the Bottle) and TV shows (Paths to Freedom, The Clinic): "I get asked now and again, and I'm delighted to be asked." But "I don't spend a lot of time worrying" about such work, he says.

A recent twist in his modus operandi has seen him working around anniversaries: the Bloomsday centenary; 1916 with Operation Easter; and next, he hopes, a play about Hugh O'Neill to mark the 400th anniversary of the Flight of Earls. "In my middle age, after years of hopeless naivety, I'm finally getting a sense of how the purse-strings are loosened." This summer he'll act in his two-hander about abolitionist Frederick Douglass with Sorcha Fox, The Cambria, in Kinsale, and next year he'll take it to the US. He is especially interested in what he calls "lightfoot" theatre, portable and low-cost shows.

Operation Easter certainly doesn't fall into that category, with a cast of 11 and staging specific to the hard floor, high ceiling and narrow landings of Kilmainham Gaol's Victorian wing, where it will play for about a month. It sounds ambitious for an actor/playwright who is often out of the mainstream. As Fintan O'Toole has noted, "O'Kelly was perhaps the first Irish writer to be animated by the plight of refugees arriving here, with plays like Asylum! Asylum! and Farawayan." In 1992, his play The Dogs, about Dublin attitudes to the North, was greeted with critical blank stares. But this time O'Kelly finds the larger culture in broad sympathy with any effort to "engage with the complexities of 1916".

He laughs: "It's nice for once to be riding a wave instead of fighting a wave. I'm usually using plays to run up a flag, to get people to focus on an issue. This time the focus is already out there."

O'Kelly's own focus is through the "lens" of the present day: Operation Easter opens in modern Moore Street – "a little prism of Ireland: the street market is completely multicultural but under the threat of a huge property development".

It was on Moore Street that Padraig Pearse saw old men trying to flee the scene gunned down by British troops, and decided to surrender to prevent further civilian bloodshed. O'Kelly uses the incident as his route into 1916, and recognises that this choice reflects a post-revisionist view of Pearse.

His is not a monomaniacal Pearse, obsessed with bloody redemption. "Even Ruth Dudley Edwards's biography, which I think is a fantastic book, doesn't overstate the blood-sacrifice thing," he says. "The one really screaming for blood sacrifice was Kitchener (Britain's war secretary), and to some extent Redmond and Dillon. You have to see it in the context of the bloodbath in Europe."

In a "previous draft" of the play O'Kelly says he tried to incorporate other major anniversaries of the Rising. "I remember in 1986 going to see Sean MacBride speak in a little hall in Rialto, with about 20 people in the audience and the Special Branch parked outside," he says. He reckons the celebrations in 1966 had a strong effect on his young mind: "I was so indoctrinated I didn't notice." And while researching Operation Easter he looked at the 30th anniversary celebrations in 1946: "The leaders were exalted to the status of sainthood, but people were still not allowed to hear what they were actually saying."

With this play he has tried to look closely at the leaders' words and actions, something of a new method for him. "I always did shy away from history's heroes." His other works have tended to draw their lessons from the "ordinary people" of Ireland and especially his native Dublin, past and present. Operation Easter does also incorporate less-celebrated perspectives – such as that of Bulmer Hobson, a veteran republican who argued that the Rising was a betrayal of the ideals of the Volunteers and the IRB, which demanded, he said, that military action must have popular support.

One of his own heroes, O'Kelly says, is Sean O'Casey. However, he doesn't follow O'Casey all the way into cynicism about the Easter Rising. "There are a few doffs to O'Casey in Operation Easter," he says, citing his characterisation of the old men who are shot at the Moore Street barricades. "But he was very selective in The Plough and the Stars. Hanna Sheehy-Skeffington's criticism was quite justified: she said O'Casey had obliterated all elements of vision and idealism among the Irish Volunteers and the Citizen Army."

O'Kelly is scathing of the caricature of the 1916 leaders as "inward-looking and parochial". The four men he focuses on had all travelled "all over the world", including to the US: his American visit was "hugely influential" on Pearse, O'Kelly says. He is particularly interested in talking about Joseph Plunkett – "I could write a whole play about him and Grace Gifford". Plunkett, he says, is often portrayed as a fop (this is not entirely absent from Rúaidhrí Conroy's performance in rehearsal) but, says O'Kelly, "he was the mastermind of the whole military operation", even as he was weakening from TB.

From the perspective of our time, too, we misunderstand the involvement of Plunkett and Thomas McDonagh in producing drama, O'Kelly says. "Now, in an era of film and television, we think of plays as innocuous hobbies. But then you'd put on a play to express your ideas – just look at the Abbey. Plunkett and McDonagh were doing Strindberg, which was as way-out and cutting-edge as you could get at the time."

O'Kelly, too, clearly sees drama as a powerful method for expressing his ideas. "I believe very strongly in the power of live theatre, the active component, the dynamism of the relationship with the audience. It poses a challenge to the audience to engage rather than just consume, as they do when they're facing a screen."p

?More Operation Easter opens at Kilmainham Gaol on Wednesday 26 April and runs for four weeks, with previews from Monday 24 April. Tickets €20, booking from 10 April from Central Ticket Bureau on 01 872 1122