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The Big Fellow talks about the hero of Ireland’s freedom movement

THE ASIAN AGE. | QUASAR THAKORE PADAMSEE
Published : Nov 22, 2017, 2:43 am IST
Updated : Nov 22, 2017, 2:45 am IST

The UK and Canada have announced special Arts grants for companies that want to collaborate with Indian artists.

A scene from Irish play The Big Fellow. The play is about Michael Collins, the man who help Ireland gain freedom.
 A scene from Irish play The Big Fellow. The play is about Michael Collins, the man who help Ireland gain freedom.

It’s 70 years of India’s Independence, and it feels like the whole world is celebrating it… except us. The UK and Canada have announced special Arts grants for companies that want to collaborate with Indian artists. These initiatives have been bandied about for the last year. More recently, though, a troupe from Ireland has descended with The Big Fellow, a play about the man who gave them their freedom, Michael Collins.

I watched it last week at Tata Literature Live! The play now heads to Delhi and Bangalore, along with its accompanying production about James Joyce called The Dubliners Dilemma.

What is interesting about The Big Fellow is that it tells the story of the great man from the point of view of someone who actually was not a supporter of Michael Collins, to begin with.

As I watched the play, I realised there is much that is similar between our two freedom movements. The adopted flags of both countries have the same three colours that completely reject the red and blue of the Union Jack. The formation of both nations was done through a bitter and violent partition based on religious boundaries. And in each case there was a Jalianwala Bagh style massacre that led to public pressure mounting inside Britain.

However, while India’s freedom was one of patience and resilience, the Irish story is much more violent. It reads more like a gangster story; of quiet executions of sympathisers in the night, of gunfights on the street, and brutality on both sides. I couldn’t help but think that perhaps I was watching an alternate history of India, one in which Subhash Chandra Bose and not Mahatma Gandhi, was the father of our nation.

The play is remarkable. It is a two-hander, but has many characters. And once you are passed the slightly thick Irish accent of Michael Collins, the play is enjoyable, not just for its content and humour, but also for the chameleon-like performance of Gerard Adlum. He plays numerous characters, each with different voice and stance; so effectively that you forget it’s the same man. The first act sets the scene, while the second act is a breakneck charge through the events that led up to the British finally leaving, and the brutal civil war that followed. The play is moving and tongue-in-cheek at the same time.

For most of us, in India, Ireland is symbolised by the various music acts that we follow; from U2 to the Cranberries to the Corrs, and for some even Boyzone. But, The Big Fellow gives you an insight into

where these great musicians have come from. We see the struggle of a tiny nation that was occupied for seven hundred years.

Its companion piece, The Dubliners Dilemma, produced by the same troupe Co-Motion, by contrast, talks of a different kind of revolution; one of words. Irish novelist James

Joyce first novel The Dubliners has been submitted to publisher Grant Richards in England. Richards rejects the novel, partly for its “salacious” content, and partly because of his strained correspondence with the genius author. However, Richards is introduced to a remarkable side of Ireland, and in particular Dublin. A place he has never visited. Through the play he begins to question his decision about whether he should have been so harsh to judge the young man.

Both plays have a different sensibility when compared to the work we normally see on our stages. I guess that’s what makes touring work so exciting to watch. We see plays completely devoid of their context, and yet find them magical and remarkable. Touring theatre is a great way for audiences to access another culture, another history, another reality. And maybe through that get a little perspective on our own.

Quasar Thakore Padamsee is a Bombay based theatre-holic. He works primarily as a theatre-director for arts management company QTP, who also manage the youth theatre movement Thespo.

Tags: the big fellow, the dubliners dilemma