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Alone It Stands
The Star
By Sharon Bakar

It’s important to tell Ireland’s story to the wider world, said Irish Ambassador Daniel Mulhall in his speech, before the start of Tuesday night’s performance of Alone It Stands at Actors Studio Bangsar, Kuala Lumpur.

And where better to start with that story than with an inspiration tale of success against the odds on the rugby pitch? Alone It Stands takes its title from an Irish rugby anthem and tells of a match that has become a legend in the annals of Irish sporting history: on Oct 31, 1978, the team from the small town of Munster played the legendary All Blacks team from New Zealand – and managed to win 12-0.

Not surprisingly, no one gave a fig for the Munster team’s chances before the game; the All Blacks were considered unbeatable and, on this particular tour, they had already defeated teams from across the British Isles. But not taking Munster seriously was a strategic error of epic proportions. Anything can and will happen in a game of rugby, as any aficionado knows, and valiant Munster became the first and only side in the history of Irish rugby ever to beat the New Zealand team.

The play, written and directed by David Breen (and brought to Malaysia by Gardner & Wife), follows events from the build-up to the match at Thomond Park to post-match celebrations, and weaves in several other stories along the way, making it the tale not only of a team, but also the whole community that supported them.

One of the joys of this play is the consummate skill and speed with which the cast switch seamlessly from one role to another. The six actors play more than 60 roles between them and at times even appear to morph physically from one character into another. They play both the Munster team and the All Blacks, as well as coaches, supporters, and a supporting cast of dozens, alternatively exchanging their Irish brogues for the altered vowels of New Zealand English. The cast make split second switches of age and gender, and one of the best visual jokes of the play is the casting of the one actress in the group, Karen Scully, as the largest and most fearsome player on the field.

Other characters include a motley assortment of supporters, including a hilarious upper crust party up from County Cork, a pair of fanatical Limerick supporters who will stop at nothing to get tickets, a singing troupe of medieval wenches at Bunratty castle, a dog called Sinbad, a gang of kids who aren’t interested in the game but decide instead to ensure their own glorious immortality by building a Halloween bonfire bigger than their rivals’, and, for just one hilarious moment, a field of cheering earthworms.

Then there’s the story of Mary and Gerry. Gerry’s loyalties are stretched to the limit when he has to choose between being with his pregnant wife who is about to deliver twins or playing in the match. Of course, as a true rugger-bugger, he gets his priorities right, and Mary’s screams of pain and efforts in the hospital room act as a counterpoint to the on-pitch exhortations and exertions of the rugby players. Sadder reflective moments are provided by the death of the father of the Munster captain during the match.

Perhaps not surprisingly, the New Zealand players don’t come out of the play too well. The play begins by emphasising the mystique and menace of the All Blacks with a stylised and whispered Ka Mate haka amidst swirls of dry ice. But complacency sets in and the New Zealanders seem more interested in drinking and wenching than in the coming match. When the unthinkable happens and the team do not even get to score a single point, the confident haka is replaced with a poignant Maori song of lament.

It is, of course, an incredible technical challenge to capture the action and excitement of a rugby pitch onstage and with such a small group of actors, yet the choreography of the play is quite stunning. Breen’s obvious understanding and love of the game manifests itself in the fluid movements of scrum and ruck and tackle as the actors capture the poetry of the pitch. The play clearly demands a very high level of physical performance from its cast, and the pace never falters. The staging of the play is very simple and basic with the actors transforming themselves into props (such as cars) when needed.

Overall Alone It Stands is light-hearted and engaging, and on this particular night, the audience gave the cast a standing ovation. I look forward to seeing the play again later in the week with my rugby-addict husband. I just hope that he isn’t too traumatised by seeing his beloved All Blacks trounced?