Still, the Blackbird Sings: Incidents at Ebrington Barracks

'Still, the Blackbird Sings' by David Duggan presented by The Playhouse, Derry.

'Still, the Blackbird Sings' by David Duggan presented by The Playhouse, Derry.

'Still, the Blackbird Sings' by David Duggan presented by The Playhouse, Derry.

'Still, the Blackbird Sings' by David Duggan presented by The Playhouse, Derry.

Francis Ledwidge was a poet and a patriot, born in Meath in 1897. As the title of the play draws to our attention, Ledwidge was also known as ‘poet of the blackbirds,’ on account of the subject matter of his verse. Duggan’s commission for the Playhouse takes Ledwidge’s time at Ebrington Barracks in 1916 as his starting point, and uses it as the basis to explore tensions arising from the man’s nationalist background, his British alliance, and his artistic sensibility.

While these seem like viable pressures for dramatic treatment, they are also overly familiar. As we are reminded by the references to the protagonist’s contemporaries Joseph Plunkett and Pádraig Pearse, there is nothing unusual in Irish history about a solider who is also a poet. Further, there is little in this drama to suggest that there was anything so compelling about Ledwidge that would warrant this kind of focus. Although Lord Dunsany (Sweeny) is keen to save the artist from death on duty, there is little in his lyrical lapses to suggest that poetry can provide a meaningful counterpoint to war. But perhaps this says more about the writing of Still, the Blackbird Sings than it does about Ledwidge.

Fundamentally, the play’s focus on conflict and camaraderie in the face of likely death struggles to win us over. It’s hard not to watch this play and think about Frank McGuinness’s rich Observe the Son’s of Ulster Marching Towards the Somme which explored a similar time period, or more recently still, Gregory Burke’s Black Watch for the National Theatre of Scotland. The point being, the poet in war has been observed quite brilliantly in theatre in relatively recent times, and we are given nothing intriguing about Ledwidge’s life, or its presentation, that illuminates the subject further.

Director McLaughlin tries to lift the dialogue by punctuating the action with occasions of comic gusto and aggression. But a couple of choices fail to work. For instance, at various points throughout the performance objects in Ledwidge’s hand turn to dust – no need to explain the metaphor – but there is nothing in the rest of the playing style to prepare us for this alchemic gesture. Similarly, when it is aired, the searing soundscape by Knappitsch takes over the action rather than makes sense of it. It shifts from horses galloping to some kind of techno-trance, and the overall effect is disorienting.

The actors do their best to keep the action animated, particularly Lee, who is the warm-hearted joker in the pack. Some actors double-up, and those who do, change in the corners of the theatre. This might work if it made sense to the rest of the performance. However, here they do it shyly, as if not wanting to be seen, and not keeping a role as they do so. The traverse design might pose limitations, but it’s a bad directorial choice and an unnecessary distraction.

Fintan Walsh is a post-doctoral research fellow at the Samuel Beckett Centre, Trinity College Dublin.


  • Review
  • Theatre

Still, the Blackbird Sings: Incidents at Ebrington Barracks by David Duggan

27 February - 14th March, 2010 (on tour)

Produced by The Playhouse Theatre, Derry
In Project Cube

Directed by Caitríona McLaughlin

Set design: Sarah Bacon

Lighting design: Sarah Jane Shiels

Costume design: Helen Quigley

Sound design: Bertram Knappitsch

With: Mark Fitzgerald, Colm Gormley, Packy Lee, Doireann McKennna, Conan Sweeny, Arthur Oliver-Brown