Elinor Lawless as Hanna in TO HAVE TO SHOOT IRISHMEN

Elinor Lawless as Hanna Sheehy Skeffington in TO HAVE TO SHOOT IRISHMEN. Photo Credit: Mike Massaro

Actress Elinor Lawless talks to Frankly My Dear UK about new play TO HAVE TO SHOOT IRISHMENand her role as Hanna Sheehy Skeffington

Lizzie Nunnery’s new play TO HAVE TO SHOOT IRISHMEN makes its debut at London’s Omnibus Theatre this week ahead of a national tour in November.

Inspired by the true murder of Irish pacifist Francis Sheehy Skeffington during the Easter Rising in Dublin in 1916, TO HAVE TO SHOOT IRISHMEN explores fractured national identity and the chaotic legacy of British military intervention.

Nunnery’s new play examines the shattering impact of those events on his wife and feminist activist Hanna, on William the young soldier who guarded Frank, and on Vane the idealistic commander who bears the news of the killing.

Ahead of its opening at the Omnibus Theatre, actress Elinor Lawless talks to Donna Kelly from Frankly My Dear UK about the new play and her role as Hanna Sheehy Skeffington.

Frankly My Dear UK (FMD): Can you start by telling us a little bit about TO HAVE TO SHOOT IRISHMEN and how you got involved with the production?

Elinor Lawless (EL): It is a play by Liverpool writer Lizzie Nunnery and is set in 1916 around the week of the Easter Rising. It focuses in on the story of Francis Sheehy Skeffington and his wife Hanna. The story is basically told through Hanna’s eyes. Her husband was a pacifist who was unlawfully executed the week of the Rising. He was trying to stop people who were looting shops at the time and he was pulled off the street by a rogue Captain by the name of John Bowen-Colthurst. Colthurst basically took it upon himself to issue an order to shoot Francis by firing squad even though no official order was given. It’s one of those lost stories. As an Irish person, the stories surrounding the Rising, particularly when I was growing up, were ones about the martyrs and the rebels and the songs and stories around that time are in that vein. I guess it’s a story that doesn’t really fit within that narrative because you have this man who was a feminist and who took his wife’s maiden name – that’s why they were double barrel, Sheehy Skeffington – he walked for women’s rights and he was very much a pacifist.

FMD: Where you familiar with the story before you got involved in the project?

EL: I feel quite ashamed as an Irish person that it’s not a story that I know. I spoke to some of my family about it and my Uncle knew Skeffington. Skeffington was a very close friend with James Joyce and they moved in those intellectual circles. Hanna was lucky enough to be educated in University College Dublin where she met Francis and as a couple, they campaigned a lot for women’s rights. They were an incredibly passionate couple but he left behind a wife and a little boy who was just eight when he was executed. It is an incredibly tragic story. It’s interesting doing a drama like this, one with a firm historical context and setting, because you feel a real sense of duty to tell this story well and to tell this story right.

FMD: You play Francis’ wife Hanna in the play, can you tell me a little bit more about your character?

EL: Hanna was an incredibly brave and fierce woman. She was known for taking on the police and even as a mother, she still spent a couple of months in jail here and there. She was very headstrong. It’s interesting because after Francis passed she became very good friends with Vane, who actually was the officer who brought the case to her – the story of the actual truth behind her husband’s death. He came of his own volition to see her and they actually relived him of his duties. She actually went on to tour America after Francis’ death to tell his story and to uncover what went on. For Vane, it was the whole sense of shame. He didn’t want the whole British army to be tarred by John Bowen-Colthurst’s actions. He was a rogue soldier who had a history in the First World War, which you learn throughout the play, where he believed he was on a mission to kind of cleanse Ireland. I would say Colthurst is the fifth character in this play who we don’t see but his presence is deeply felt.

Gerard Kearns as Frank and Elinor Lawless as Hanna in TO HAVE TO SHOOT IRISHMEN.

Gerard Kearns as Frank and Elinor Lawless as Hanna in TO HAVE TO SHOOT IRISHMEN. Photo: Mike Massaro

FMD: TO HAVE TO SHOOT IRISHMEN is a very personal story, how did you get under the skin of the character and prepare for the role?

EL: I’ve got a little boy myself and I think that really helped me. I’m very lucky because I’ve got a husband who is incredibly supportive, he’s at home with our boy looking after him so I can actually do this play! So to be a wife and mother has really helped me in terms of what that loss must feel like. But in terms of preparation for a role like this, we’ve done a lot of homework on these people and Lizzie, Gemma [Kerr], our Director and Simon [Carroll-Jones], our Movement Director have done a lot of research. We’ve really homed in on these people and we’ve answered a lot of questions. We’ve really had to wring the text dry in terms of making sure we really know the ins and outs of these people and how they were connected. You’ve got four every different characters and it’s all about the invisible thread that connects these people. It kind of flits between past and present, so the play shifts in time and that journey is really helped by Lizzie and Vidar [Norheim], the Musical Director who have created this amazing score and songs that help bind it all together.

FMD: You mentioned the music and like many of Lizzie’s other productions, music plays a big part in the story. Can you tell us a little bit more about that?

EL: The music is such a part of it, it’s so embedded in the piece. It involves a lot of singing and any kind of percussion beat or melody is created live on stage. We have a piano, a harmonium and a mandolin that is played with a bow. We create an ambiance using those instruments and bits of the set. I guess it’s the idea that music helps conjure up the story.

FMD: This is a new play by Lizzie Nunnery. Does this mean you get to be more creatively involved in the process as an actor?

EL: Yes, absolutely. We’re all very fortunate in terms of the team that we have – Lizzie, Vidar and Gemma – it’s been such an organic process. To get to create these characters from scratch has just been an incredible privilege. It’s exciting as well. We open in London and you can just feel the trepidation and excitement and that’s because it’s new. You really can’t gauge how a story like this is going to be received and there’s a real excitement in that.

FMD: Why do you think it is important for this story to be told?

EL: I think what’s really interesting about this story and these characters is that in today’s climate, everyone seems to have a clear sense about what they think is right and what they think is wrong, and I think this story kind of exposes the complexity of that. Things aren’t so cut and dry. There’s a line in the play “there’s a right and a wrong to this” and I guess what this play picks apart is that it’s not always as simple as that. I think that’s why it’s important.

TO HAVE TO SHOOT IRISHMEN will open at Omnibus Theatre from the 2-20 October and will then tour until 6 November.