The Final Words of Thomas Russell

Philip Orr and Will Irvine produce a bold one-man show

The Final Words of Thomas Russell is a remarkable one-act play by the historian and playwright, Philip Orr, and the Irish actor, Will Irvine.

Beginning on the eve of his execution, the play finds the United Irishman recollecting the string of events which brought him to this end.

His aim is to formulate a parting phrase which may sum up the measure of his soul. No mean feat for any man let alone someone like Russell who led such an eventful life.

The character of Thomas Russell is a fractured kaleidoscope of complexities and seemingly irreconcilable contradictions. As a British soldier he enforced British rule in colonial India and yet he would later breed armed rebellion against the British presence in Ireland.

He was a scholar with a love of literature, geology and philosophy but he could send a man to his death with a shot from his gun or the stab of his blade. He had a weakness for the carnal excesses of alcohol and sex and yet he was a deeply religious man who sought out passages of scripture for solace and guidance.

As a general in the United Irish army he was a hero to some and a traitor to others. The play suggests that to try to understand how these disparate elements can exist within one man is to come close to understanding the fractured psyche of this troubled island.

‘I hear the ghosts of the past,’ Russell says as he begins to reconstruct the intricate paths his life has followed. Will Irvine, like a medium possessed, is inhabited by the figures Russell has encountered in this rich pageantry of time.

With effortless skill he becomes the war-weary father who warns his young son of the pitfalls of soldiering. By altering his voice and adopting idiosyncrasies and gestures of the characters, Irvine creates a sharply-edged and vividly realised cast of historical figures including Theobald Wolfe Tone, Robert Emmett, Henry Joy McCracken and Francis Dobbs.

Along with these men who joined Russell in his quest for Irish emancipation, Irvine treats the audience to a whole gallery of supporting characters. His metamorphosis from one character to another is seamless but it is his portrayal of Russell which is the most nuanced and subtle performance of the play.

Co-written by Philip Orr and Will Irvine, the script contains a wide range of people and events for the 75 minutes of the play. If there is a flaw in the writing, it is that the brief failed romance between Thomas Russell and Eliza Goddard is barely sketched-out and as a result it feels forced and tacked on.

However, for a one-act play that attempts to give the audience an impression of one man’s tumultuous life paralleled with the upheaval that fevered the nation, it is inevitable that some elements must be condensed or merely implied.

With nothing more than a book, a chair, a table and a green blanket we are shown the cell and all that inhabits the world beyond. It is the sight of Russell wrapped in his blanket which is the most haunting image of the play.

This echoes into Russell’s future and our past where other prisoners clutched blankets in other cells. It serves to remind the audience that with history, Irish or otherwise, events are often repeated and transformed as the forces which gripped one generation rise again to take life in another.

There is something magical about a play with just one actor. As one actor takes on several identities and creates a whole world just through the power of good story-telling, skillful acting, and the imagination of the audience, it is a purer form of theatre than any other.

The Final Words is a fine example of this and in the many roles Russell played in his life, as lover, scholar, soldier etc we are shown the fractured nature of identity, that most postmodern of concerns.

Irvine’s talk of ‘ghosts of the past’ may send a chill up the spine of some timid viewers. Why? The play was performed in The Linen Hall Library and it was in this venerable institution that Thomas Russell worked as a librarian during his time in Belfast. The thought that he sat at his desk, unaware of what lay ahead, makes us all less certain of our own futures...

The Final Words of Thomas Russell is a captivating and intelligent piece of theatre. Can it or any other play explain of the measure of a man’s soul in the course of one short evening? I’m not sure. It suggests that the ghosts of our past are never really gone. They linger still, guiding our actions, shaping the present, and whispering their words to those who can listen.