A history-from-the-top-down approach focuses on the leaders and prominent players in epochal events and movements, and a history-from-the-ground-up approach presents so-called ordinary people swept up in the bigger picture. In “Rebellion,” a five-part RTE miniseries airing this month on Sundance TV, the 1916 Easter Rising unfolds through the latter approach. The ambitious series, with its six million euro price tag standin as RTE’s most expensive docudrama, was filmed in Dublin in 2015.
The series opens with the eruption of World War I, and as the cataclysmic conflict deepens and Irish are cut down in droves on the Western Front, viewers experience the events largely in Dublin, Belfast, and London through the prism of three young women along with their families, friends, and lovers. All are juxtaposed against the gathering turmoil of the push for Irish independence. Idealism, tangled loyalties to family and social, cultural, and political tradition, raw opportunism – all of these themes others loom large in the production.
Directed by Finnish native Aku Louhimies and written and co-produced by Colin Teevan, “Rebellion” features a strong cast and some vivid performances. Notable among the stars are Charlie Murphy, Brian Gleeson, and Ruth Bradley – all well-known to many viewers from their turns in “Love/Hate” – and Sarah Greene, of “Penny Dreadful.”
Murphy plays medical student Elizabeth Butler, whose family and fiancé are determined to show their support for both the British war effort and for Home Rule. She goes in a decidedly different direction by joining the women rebels led by Countess Constance Markievicz. Their mission is to seize and hold Stephen’s Green and set up headquarters in the Royal College of Surgeons during the Rising. Gleeson is Jimmy Mahon, an Irish Citizen Army man in love with Elizabeth.
Played by Sarah Greene, Elizabeth’s friend May Lacey is employed at the British headquarters at Dublin Castle and involved in an affair with British Chief Secretary Charles Hammond (Tom Turner), who dumps her when his wife arrives in Dublin. In an act both personal and perhaps patriotic, May smuggles a British document with a list of Irish Volunteers and Sinn Féiners about to be arrested and gives it Frances O’Flaherty (Ruth Bradley), who teaches at Enda’s with none other than rebel leader Patrick Pearse (played by Marcus Lamb). The action is off and running.
Colin Teevan, whose work “Charlie” examined the controversial life and career of disgraced Taoiseach Charles Haughey, has chosen to depict the Easter Rising in a different vein – through fictional characters who stand as composites of their era. The leaders of the Rising appear fleetingly. The aforementioned Marcus Lamb does render a memorable Pearse by capturing a genuine sense of almost frightening conviction in his determination to offer himself and the other rebels as a blood sacrifice for Irish freedom. As James Connolly, Brian McCardie’s one scene – replete with Connolly’s trademark Scottish accent – is dramatic. Camille O’Sullivan appears briefly as Countess Markievicz.
Historical docudrama is a tricky business at best. Understandably, bonafide historians are always ready to pounce upon the slightest factual inaccuracies. On the other hand, many viewers will depart fast for anything that, to them, smacks of “dry-as-dust” history. They want visceral emotion and action. Teevan has embraced that oft-daunting balancing act. The look of the series – from Dublin’s General Post Office to Kilmainham and other sites – is utterly genuine, as are the emotions and inner turmoil of the characters. By design, Teevan chose to tell the story through women as the leads.
In short, viewers who want a by-the-book telling of the Rising from the top down might carp at the narrative choices of the miniseries. Teevan and company, however, have rendered a compelling, dramatic, and emotional portrait of the Rising. “Rebellion” is ultimately well worth the watching.
Recently, Teevan spoke by phone with the BIR:
Q. Although you chose to tell the story of the Easter Rising from the vantage points not through the familiar figures – de Valera, Collins, Markievicz, Pearse, Connolly, and so forth – the broad themes that drove the rebellion are very much part of the plot lines.
Teevan: The situation was so complex, so rooted in history, tradition, culture, society, politics, and the First World War. One theme that’s so important to me is that people don’t just remember the rebels, but that they remember all of the Irishmen who died in the trenches of the Western Front or came home maimed physically and psychologically. What we now call post-traumatic stress syndrome (PTSD) was “shell-shock” back then. In Dublin, Belfast, and all Ireland, you had men affected by it.
Q. In many ways, you depict the Rising as generational.
Teevan: Everything was changing in Ireland, and World War I accelerated the breakdown of conventional mores. The older generation was more inclined to support Home Rule or, if Protestant, to maintain the status quo. To so many of the younger generation, the status quo was unacceptable anymore. Women in Ireland were already moving far ahead of other nations in pushing for the vote, equal rights, and societal roles in which a woman could have a genuine career if she chose. To “old” Ireland, such ideas seemed radical. Later, when de Valera became the Republic’s first president, his conservative Catholicism set back women who had fought alongside the men during Easter Week of 1916.
Q. Why did you opt for a ground-up approach to a top-down one?
Teevan: Well, I wanted to present the basic principles that drove regular men and women to take up arms and fight from the barricades in 1916. I wanted to tell about the other people immersed in it – not focus on the leaders. It’s so true that history is written by the victors, and that’s why it’s so important to explore the forgotten voices of those who struggled, suffered, and, in many cases, sacrificed themselves for a cause. Their names are always forgotten. That’s the reason I believe that it’s so important to listen to them.
I want also to ensure that people realize that Pearse and other rebels were hardly the only ones fighting in 1916. Over 150,000 Irishmen were fighting in Europe. They, too, were risking their lives, and doing so for a cause that fewer and fewer believed in as the war dragged on.
Q. The literal meaning of “rebellion” is prevalent throughout the series.
Teevan: Yes, strongly so. I wanted to explore the whole level of revolution in Ireland and elsewhere. There was rebellion across Ireland, in Finland, in Russia, and with the Spartacists in Germany. There’s always the moment when a riot becomes a revolution. You rebel against everything you’ve ever known – the genie’s let out of the lamp. No turning back after that moment. The old rules are gone. They don’t apply anymore.
Yeats published his famous poem [“Easter 1916”] some four years after the Rising. No one knew where the revolt would lead, but his words – “All changed, changed utterly” – truly captured that uncertainty and also the certainty that nothing would ever be the same.
“Rebellion” airs on SundanceTV at 8 p.m., starting Sun., April 24, through Tues., April 26.