Performance artist, Anthony Keigher (aka Xnthony), has turned his hand at making a full-scale musical driven by massive and brilliant pop anthems throughout created by Irish musician Ódú – in his highly acclaimed musical Oliver Cromwell is Really Very Sorry which returns to Dublin and goes on national tour also.
Where did the idea for a musical about Cromwell originate from? Did you consult the likes of Springtime for Hitler before making it?
“Great reference – but that specific reference never came into my world. I think I like to be a little naughty (or daring) when it comes to generating ideas. The idea for the show sparked after my 2019 Edinburgh performance. I had just wrapped up my show Confirmation, a play about the marriage equality referendum in my hometown, Roscommon. It didn’t seem to resonate with British audiences, which left me feeling disappointed. At the time, Brexit was causing issues in how the UK was handling Northern Ireland, especially with matters like the backstop and the border. This prompted me to create a show that could shed light on this intricate shared history between us and provide a comprehensive history lesson on England’s time in Ireland, for English audiences.
I posted about the idea online and the response was really positive – people wanted to see something like this and they needed to feel heard. I tend to trust my instincts, and when I see people excited and engaged with a subject, that’s motivation enough for me. Even though it might sound like a superficial approach to generating ideas, I’m not interested in creating work that’s solely for my own satisfaction.
Moreover, I’ve always had a deep fascination with history, particularly Irish history, and my previous work has often delved into historical themes and the complexities of multi-national identities. Even if it may seem flashy and extravagant, these underlying themes have always been a part of my work.
The focus on Oliver Cromwell as a central figure in the show emerged during the creative process. We tended to consult cabaret shows rather than musicals (though we did watch tonnes of those too) – like Lucy McCormack’s work and Taylor Mac’s 24 hour pop concert.”
Cromwell is Really Very Sorry won Best Ensemble at Dublin Fringe Festival last year. How much impetus does an accolade offer?
“The response to the show was overwhelming. Many readers may be familiar with my earlier work and how it was as received. For many years I felt very much on the outside of what was deemed acceptable for theatre or even ‘of quality’.
What I didn’t realise was that I was creating a context for queer work that simply didn’t exist in Ireland at the time. Now there is simply more queer work at scale happening and the theatre landscape has moved with me.
The award was thrilling and the subsequent nominations at Irish Times Theatre Awards was not something I had ever expected. It makes me feel empowered to make more work and makes me feel like all that hard graft was worth it.”
Drag/cabaret and pop have always been at the heart of what you do and from hosting nights in London in the likes of the Glory and London Irish Centre. What are the theatrical merits of this cross-section when presenting material?
Cabaret allows for a sense of urgency – a sense of ‘sitting on the lap’ of magic. By that I mean – the audience member will always be in a state of response and conversation with the cabaret performer. It’s particularly exciting in a cabaret show when the performer ‘drops the ball’ and by this I mean – they share a sense of vulnerability without seeming exposed. This is what demarcates cabaret apart from theatre and why the skill sit it demands should be held in high regard. Theatre audiences which are often expected to sit quietly and take it in. We don’t want that in this show, or in my work in general. By taking from cabaret we are able to instil a sense of urgency and electricity which hammers home the themes of the show and sheds new light on the dark subject matter.
“It’s particularly exciting in a cabaret show when the performer ‘drops the ball’ and by this I mean – they share a sense of vulnerability without seeming exposed.”
Pop music has always been key to me because growing up gay I was literally obsessed with Madonna. I lusted after the scale of the work she created, the references she brought into the work and how charismatic and electric she was on stage. It also turns out that pop songs are a brilliant tool for explaining history clearly – but with a twist. So it all worked out in the end. I feel strongly that pop music is not to be sniffed at – it’s a great equaliser because pop music reaches all homes and all people.”
Has the show evolved in the intervening year since you last staged it? What are the challenges of staging a musical in 2023?
“We have worked very hard at adding further layers to the layers of each character’s objective – not least Cromwell himself. He goes on a journey in our show: from country bumpkin, aspiring actor … to modernising parliamentarian to genocidal leader. We very much did not want Cromwell to seem like he was simply pushed into the decisions he made. The fact is he made decisions in his life, violent or otherwise, to gain more power. He probably thought his actions would give him direct access to heaven…which is certainly not what a lot of our currently leaders would have as an aim.”
You are bi-locating between your homeland of Roscommon and London, does returning home from a big city give you a fresh perspective on both places?
“I am artist-in-resident in Roscommon Arts Centre which is … fab! I love being at home because it gives me the time and space to focus on my writing, especially as I am developing my screen writing. I also appreciate the grounding nature of Roscommon. You cannot have any notions! And there is this deep sense of being hard working and decency that I have carried with me.
London offers cultural and creative influence, new ideas and a nightlife culture that simply does not exist in Ireland. Unfortunately the housing crisis has destroyed nightlife spaces – and without working in London a whole segment of my practise and income would be decimated.”
Main photo: LUXXER
Other photos: Christa Holka