Alone It Stands

By John Breen. Ensemble Theatre, Sydney. Directed by Janine Watson. 25 January – 2 March, 2024

Reviewed : 31 January, 2024*

Photo : Prudence Upton

On Tuesday 31st October 1978, my friend Seán “mitched” (wagged) school and hitchhiked to Limerick to watch his all-amateur team from Munster play against the mighty New Zealand All Blacks. On the pitch in Thomond Park with a seating capacity of only 12,000, he and his mate watched their team beat the All Blacks … 12-0! He’s been dining out on the story ever since, especially now that he lives in Australia!

In 1999, John Breen recorded the exhilaration – and surprise – of that win in his play Alone it Stands, the title a double reference: to the singularity of the event itself and to Shannon Rugby Football Club’s anthem/victory song, There is an Isle. He attributes the win to raising the spirits of an Ireland that at the time appeared “cursed” by war, politics and unemployment.

Photo : Prudence Upton

Directors – and actors – take on a production like this with courage. Firstly, six actors play 65 characters, moving from Irish to New Zealand accents as they replay parts of the game from both sides of the action, running, tackling, diving for the ball, jumping in lineouts, harassing in scrums. They also play spectators, fans, a BBC commentator, the local kids setting up their Halloween bonfire, a taxi driver, a barmaid, a priest and nurses delivering twins to Mary, whose husband Gerry has sneaked off to watch the match!

Director Janine Watson pays tribute to her fellow creatives, especially dialect coach Linda Nicholls-Gidley, fight director Tim Dashwood and intimacy coordinator Chloë Dallimore for their expertise – and cultural consultant Tiana Tiakiwai for allowing the production “to explore the Haka Ka Mate and perform it with respect and honour to its origin and history”. The authenticity of this production is outstanding.

Photo : Prudence Upton

Watson has given a great deal of thought and time to her analysis of the production, admitting that “never before have I used huge scrapbooks and drawn out the staging for every moment like football game play, so that every actor has a solid topography”. So solid is that ‘topography’, that her cast work as a well-oiled machine – or rugby team! The moves, the tactics, the use of space and the changes of pace and character are a tribute to a director who knows her play intimately.

Photo : Prudence Upton

All six actors are fit! They have to be to sustain the pace and rigour of the production. All make their character changes distinct, even when they change from one team to another in the middle of a scene. All depict the drive and competitive spirit of the players they represent, their faces set, their eyes glaring, their muscles straining – then, in a moment become the kids at the bonfire, or Mary in labour, or Bridie Walsh, the barmaid!

They are in reality Tristan Black, Ray Chong Nee, Briallen Clarke, Skyler Ellis, Alex King and Anthony Taufa. Everyone of them deserves multiple accolades for the strength and authenticity of the many characters they portray and the energy and vitality of their performances.

Photo : Prudence Upton

In Janine Watson’s words they “bring truth and heart to even the smallest character … and embody and translate the essence of John Breen’s play – warmth, irreverence, joy, energy”.

It’s a happy, fast, funny production that celebrates an event that has become part of Irish folklore.

*Opening performance