Rugby play continues to kick goals for its writer, John Breen

It’s 1978, and Ireland is on its back. War ravages the north, and the south suffers rabid inflation and crippling unemployment. U2 are yet to dominate the world, and it seems there’s little that’s Irish to raise spirits or spark pride. Then Munster, an amateur rugby union team from Limerick, does the unthinkable, and beats the all-conquering All Blacks – the only time the New Zealanders were beaten in an 18-match tour of the United Kingdom and Ireland.

Fast-forward to 1998, and theatre-maker John Breen, who was a boy in Limerick when the game was played, is disappointed that the 20th anniversary of what he calls this “mythological event” passes without due celebration. So he writes a play about it, Alone it Stands.

John Breen. Photo supplied. Top photo courtesy of The Irish Times.

Breen interviewed players, officials and spectators, intending the play to do no more than tour Irish rugby clubs. “I knew if I got any of the rugby stuff wrong, I’d be crucified, and could never show my face in Limerick again,” he tells me via Zoom. “I don’t think you could write a similar play about soccer, for example, because in rugby you’ve got these beautiful set pieces [scrums and line-outs], so I could see it in my head as I was writing it.”

In his research he read that Dan Canniffe, the father of Munster’s captain, died while the game was underway. “I thought, ‘That’s it!’” he says. “‘That’s the heart of the play.’ As luck would have it, the first two lines of the Haka are, ‘It’s life, it’s life, it’s death, it’s death.’ I had a death in the play, and I wanted a birth, and I would start with the Haka and see where it took me. It was a story crying out to be written.”

Six actors would delineate 62 characters just via physicality and voice, and there’d be no set beyond judo mats. He wanted a fast-moving play of short, sharp scenes, packed with conflict, the lifeblood comedy as well as drama. “I didn’t realise until I got in front of an audience how funny it was,” he recalls. “There were a few lines that in rehearsals I just thought, ‘That’s terrible.’ We tried other things, but we’d leave it in – and it turned out to be this huge laugh-line.”

He wanted two characters who didn’t care about the game. One is a 12-year-old boy, based on himself, who was preoccupied with gathering fuel for a bonfire, and other is a woman going into labour, whose husband has prioritised being at the game. He also wanted to flick the emotional switch to honouring Dan Canniffe’s death.

John Breen.

The show’s first night was at a club in Waterford, whose chairman was on the board of the local theatre. After training and showering, the players were in the bar when the chairman announced that they must all stay to see a play that was going on. Amid a clamour of expletives, they dutifully obeyed. “It was just in the bar of the rugby club,” says Breen, who also directed it, “and they loved it! They laughed their arses off, and the next night it was full again.”

From playing in clubs, it moved into small theatres, where the controversial columnist Kevin Myers saw it, and wrote that everyone in Ireland should see it, and that Breen was a genius. “After he wrote that you couldn’t get a ticket,” says the playwright, who watched it move to successively bigger theatres until it was in the West End and then Sydney Opera House. “I won best director at The Irish Times Theatre Awards just after the initial run,” he continues, “which was the first date with my now wife! So that was pretty good.”

He now lives in New York, and with no interest in rugby there, he had to reestablish a career, and so produces off-Broadway plays. He’d started out in the arts in the early 1990s, expecting a typically impoverished existence. “The success of the play changed my life,” he says. “It’s been very good to me.”

Alone It Stands: Ensemble Theatre, until March 2.