Episode two of TV3’s 1916 experimental drama ‘Trial of the Century’ saw Padraig Pearse launch his defence.
Tom Vaughan Lawlor’s Pearse was beckoned to leave the dock and address the jury from the bench by David Heap’s Judge Bonham.
Pearse began by telling the jurors he wished to talk to them about an “island nation” with “a noble history”.
That island nation was Britain.
He wanted them to imagine a situation where the Germans triumphed in the Great War.
The Germans would control the newspapers, the education system and talk about how they liberated the English from their unsophisticated ways.
They might even allow the English to elect representatives to a Parliament in Berlin, he speculated.
In that future, he asked, who would tell an Englishman that he dare not revolt?
Pearse argued to imagine that future for England was to confront Ireland’s past.
His first witness was James Connolly, which prompted Andrew Bennett’s prosecuting barrister Sebastian Banks to claim the 1916 rebel leader was trying to use the court solely for propaganda purposes.
Connolly was allowed to proceed and he explained that the Dublin Lockout was the key to the formation of the Irish Citizens Army.
They had participated in the Rising to advance the cause of labour in Ireland.
Under questioning from Banks, the prosecutor revealed Connolly had served in the British Army but suggested he had deserted.
Connolly responded he did not serve the Empire. He served the working man.
Outside the cortroom Mark Huberman’s George Gavan Duffy questioned the wisdom of calling Connolly to the witness box, arguing he was a Bolshevik who scared the living daylights of the Dublin middle class whose support Pearse needed.
Pearse was unrepentant, defending Connolly’s patriotism.
His next witnesses were Neili Conroy’s Mary O’Rourke and Dawn Bradfield’s Hanna Sheehy-Skeffington who detailed the killings of their husbands by the British.
Gavan Duffy and Marie Mullen’s Lady Augusta Gregory were the next in the witness box – with the latter being encouraged to challenge the prosecution’s narrative that the accused had swayed impressionable young boys to his cause in his role as a teacher at St Enda’s.
Banks’ trump card was to make an uncomfortable Lady Gregory read passages from Pearse’s poem ‘Little Lad of the Tales’, tapping into suggestions during the cross-examination of Eoin MacNeill in Episode One that the rebel leader might be gay.
In what was undoubtedly the most gripping part of tonight’s courtroom drama, Mullen conveyed the deep unease of Lady Gregory as she read out loud: ‘I forgive you, child of the soft red mouth. I will not condemm anyone for a sin not understood. Raise your comely head till I kiss your mouth.. There is a fragrance in your kiss that I have not found yet in the kisses of women or in the honey of their bodies.”
Clearly disturbed by how Pearse was being portrayed in court, Lady Gregory rallied and reminded Banks that this was a poem – not a diary entry.
Pearse, nevertheless, was rattled despite Gavan Duffy trying to assure him that the way the poem had been presented would be seen by the jury and the wider public as a desperate tactic.
Eamonn Hunt’s General Banks, meanwhile, met with Banks to tell him the British Government was uneasy about the direction of the trial.
He gave him a “smoking gun” which was deployed against Pearse’s next witness in the treason trial – a diary with entries that showed Joseph Mary Plunkett had been with Roger Casement in Germany to recruit rebels.
John Cronin’s Plunkett was shaken by the revelation – even if the diary was deemed inadmissable.
Pearse’s final witness was his own brother Willie – played by another ‘Love Hate’ alumnus Peter Campion.
In a rather unconvincing, stagey scene, willie was asked a simple question by Padraig – did he deserve to die?
With a tear stubbornly refusing to drop from his left eye, Willie said he couldn’t answer that because if he said yes, then that would mean he would be signing his own death warrant too and if he said no, who was he to make such a judgment? However he added wherever his brother went, he would follow.
After an emotional reunion with his mother Margaret, played by Jane Brennan, Pearse was back in court the following day for closing arguments.
The prosecution urged the jury not to be swayed by the accused’s claim that there was any moral justification for the Rising.
Invoking the 100,000 Irishmen fighting on the front, Banks admitted liberty was a noble cause if it was based on the will of the people.
Banks argued the vast majority of the Irish people clearly supported Home Rule. They did not want the rebellion.
Pearse invoked nationalist icons in his closing argument, saying he had come to realise in the weeks following the Rising that Jeremiah O’Donovan Rossa, Robert Emmett and Wolfe Tone were more than flesh and blood.
They had become ideas that lived on in the hearts and minds of subsequent generations.
Admitting he was afraid of death, he also held open the possibility that he might too become “an idea worth remembering”.
Writer Hugh Travers and director Maurice Sweeney denied audiences in the second episode the chance to see how a jury in 1916 might have ruled on Pearse’s case.
In tomorrow night’s final instalment that task will fall to a contemporary jury in a studio debate chaired by the broadcaster Pat Kenny, acting as the foreman, and featuring Nick Leeson, the singer Damien Dempsey, the comedian Eleanor Tiernan and the human rights campaigner Colm O’Gorman.
But, not surprisingly in an Irish production, the writers’ sympathies rest with Pearse.
Tom Vaughan Lawlor has turned in a commanding performance as Pearse – capturing his gait and his complexity.
‘Trial of the Century’ should be applauded for its ingenuity on such a low budget and its research.
Travers and Sweeney certainly have done enough to hold their audience, even if it has suffered at times from being a bit too stilted and theatrical.
Much of this is down to the budget which means the action is mostly confined to the courtroom.
However some performances have been uneven, with Bennett’s Banks lacking sufficient humanity and the appearances by historical figures like Connolly and Plunkett proving underwhelming.
Marie Mullen did get to shine as Lady Gregory but where the programme has really sparkled is in its depiction of ordinary working class Dubs caught up in the events of the Rising.
Indeed you felt we could have done more with Neili Conroy’s appearance as Mary O’Rourke.
‘Trial of the Century’ has been thought provoking but the decision to tag on a reality TV element to the drama with tomorrow night’s celebrity jury is a high wire act which could backfire on the whole venture.
At this stage it is holding its own against RTE’s bigger budget series ‘Rebellion’, which aired in January and is now available for streaming on Netflix.
But if tomorrow night’s discussion feels too false, too pre-determined, it could undermine what has otherwise been a decent low budget drama.
(Dan McGinn is the resident film critic on Belfast 89FM’s ‘Saturday Bites’ programme and has a film and TV blog, They’ll Love It In Pomona – http://loveitinpomona.blogspot.co.uk/?m=1)