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Solemn Mockeries

by Rick Creese

Directed by Sarah Whitney

The Midnight Company, Tower Grove Abbey

January 3rd, 2014

Joe Hanrahan Photo by Sarah Whitney The Midnight Company

Joe Hanrahan
Photo by Sarah Whitney
The Midnight Company

The Midnight Company is starting off the New Year with a trip back in time. With their new production of Rick Creese’s one-man play Solemn Mockeries, the Tower Grove Abbey has been turned into a sort of “Wayback Machine”, transporting the audience to 19th Century London, where we are introduced to the colorful William-Henry Ireland (Joe Hanrahan), who recounts his fascinating, alternately comic and tragic life story, focusing on that one time, 30 years earlier in 1795, when he almost got away with forging a full-length Shakespeare play and managed to have the play staged by some of the most prominent theatrical figures of the era in one of the most well-known theaters in London. It’s one of those too-strange-to-believed anecdotes of history that, astoundingly enough, actually did happen, and this production turns that improbable tale into an entertainingly immersive evening of theatre.

The setting is very simple, but completely effective. Just a few pieces of furniture and a series of placards announcing Ireland’s appearance (introduced by a silent, sober-faced man in impeccable early 19th Century costume) help set the mood and transport the audience back to an era in which the apologetic but also proud and enterprising Ireland is making a living out of reliving his earlier adventures before the general public.  The Tower Grove Abbey, a re-purposed early 20th Century church building with its wooden pews and stained glass windows,is a fitting venue for this event, and Hanrahan, as Ireland, even makes a sly reference to the building in his opening remarks. It’s easy to get caught up in the illusion of the 1820’s setting as Ireland tells his story and interacts with the audience, giving impromptu quizzes, asking for opinions and offering whimsical commentary on the events as he portrays them.

Hanrahan, looking like he stepped out of the pages of a history book in costume designer Taylor Steward’s well-appointed ensemble, portrays Ireland as an eager-to-please, charming rascal who is at once proud and apologetic about his career as a forger. His accent is a bit uneven in places, but that doesn’t really matter in the long run since his Ireland is such a fascinating character, and his descriptions of his upbringing and the events that led into his acts of fraud are thoroughly compelling to watch.

Hanrahan portrays not only Ireland, but also Ireland’s impressions of various character’s in Ireland’s life, from his stern, historical relic-obsessed father, to his opportunistic actor friend, to the Duke of Clarence (the future King William IV)  and the various actors involved with the production of Ireland’s faux Shakespearean tragedy, Vortigern.  It’s a hilarious comic performance, but also tinged with regret and even tragedy, as Ireland is shown as an ingratiating sort whose greatest wish in life was to please his own implacable father, who ignored and neglected the young Ireland until he suddenly “found” all these documents supposedly written by the Bard.  Hanrahan’s Ireland is a mass of contradictions–reveling in his adventures while simultaneously showing regret and a desire to be accepted, full of self-deprecating wit and giddy, gleeful energy as the story of his colossal failure unfolds.

The play itself finds a lot of sympathy in Ireland, especially in his upbringing and neglect by his parents, but it also presents him as something of a pathetic figure–a mediocre artist looking for validation, but who was born into a world where celebrity was highly valued and enterprising people could make their own fame if they had the right motivation, and the right gimmick.  It actually sounds a lot like today, which is why I think a story like this can be so entertaining for modern audiences.  Today’s William-Henry Ireland would probably have his own reality show as opposed to appearing on the lecture circuit, but regardless of how enlightened people may think they are today, there still seem to be engaging frauds like Ireland popping up from time to time looking for attention and, eventually, forgiveness.

Ultimately, I was impressed by how vividly the times and places of William Henry Ireland’s life were evoked by this production, with nothing more than the impeccable costumes, simple sets and Hanrahan’s compelling performance to hold the audience’s attention and capture our imaginations.  Ireland is a person that many people may not have heard of,  and this production introduces us to him and and the events of his life in a thoroughly engaging way. It’s a very amusing and thought-provoking  journey through time.

Joe Hanrahan  Photo by Sarah Whitney The Midnight Company

Joe Hanrahan
Photo by Sarah Whitney
The Midnight Company

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