Charlie Jack, Edinburgh Fringe, History, Hoax, PQA Venues at Riddle's Court, Stage D'Or, Theatre Review, Tim Connery, Tim Connery's The Legacy of William Ireland, William Henry Ireland, William Shakespeare
Tim Connery’s “The Legacy Of William Ireland,” which is currently showing at Riddle’s Court, is of that genre of Fringe play that manages to sift some stray, glittering curio from where the dust of history lies deep. Shows this year about the South African bank robber Andre Stander and the lesbian Parisian nightclub the Monocle are perfect examples of such a production. Maybe there will be one day enough of these plays for them to have their own section in the Fringe guide. Connery introduces us to William Henry Ireland, a late-eighteenth-century forger of Shakespearean manuscripts. Ireland had capped his misdeeds with the faking of an entire play – the reportedly very crude Vortigern and Rowena – that was staged once and once only at the Drury Lane Theatre in 1796, to widespread bemusement.
Unfortunately “The Legacy of William Ireland” is never committed to telling this story accurately or realistically. From the cursory research that I have since undertaken into Vortigern and Rowena, I have found that some of the events in Connery’s account did not in fact happen. Samuel Ireland was not on his death bed when his son had first sprung the forgeries on him; neither was the Drury Lane Theatre burned by a mob who were incensed at the subpar Shakespeare. A play of this sort is like a crystal that will shatter once it has registered a single flaw. If one detail is detectably untrue, then all of them can be.
I typically pile even more opprobrium on to one-man plays than Vortigern and Rowena had received from its only ever audience. Yet the realism in “The Legacy Of William Ireland” is so squishy that it might as well remain a one-man play. In Charlie Jack, the play certainly has command of an able and charming performer. He envisages Ireland as a figure of knock-kneed, bumptious woe. If this Ireland had a place in Shakespeare’s writing, however, he would be a minor, forgettable figure from an early comedy. His curse is to be immortalised as unreliably as Shakespeare had himself rendered Richard III.
A broader problem with this play is that it is never made clear to us whether Ireland had had access to the Bard’s authentic signature (he had) or where he gained this knowhow (his father’s papers). We will naturally not be satisfied with how the story breezes over these questions. In what precise circumstances could our poorly-educated legal clerk have read or experienced Shakespeare’s plays to such an extent that he could passably pastiche them? In real life, I imagine that there must have been something mildly extraordinary to Ireland. To even half imitate a Shakespearean tragedy must require an almost insane degree of ambition. I can’t think of any writer in my own lifetime who has tried to sincerely mimic Shakespeare.
James Macpherson, the forger or embellisher of Ossian, is missing from this play, which seems as weird as putting Elvis on stage without mentioning Chuck Berry. Another, more major absence is Vortigern and Rowena itself. Why not recite a single line from it? The answer is presumably that having Ireland’s actual words in the production would urge us to think far more deeply about him.