Northern Irish drama

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Plays

Antigone (trans. McCafferty)

Nick Hern Books
Type: Text

Owen McCafferty's version of Sophocles’ Antigone is a muscular take on the ancient Greek tragedy that offers a reflection on the nature of power, democracy and human rights. It was first performed by Prime Cut Productions at the Waterfront Studio Hall, Belfast, in October 2008 as part of the Ulster Bank Belfast Festival.

The play takes place in a huge hall within the palace of Creon, the new ruler of Thebes. The palace is in ruins after battle and, although the war has ended, with peace comes conflict. Antigone’s brother Polyneices lies on the battlefield where he fell, his burial outlawed by Creon. Antigone is determined to overrule him and attempts to persuade her sister, Ismene, to join her in rebellion against the king, but to no avail. When Creon discovers that Antigone has disobeyed him and buried her brother, she is captured, a decision that triggers a catastrophic chain reaction resulting in the double suicide of his son Haemon and wife Eurydice.

Sophocles’ tragedy has a powerful resonance in post-conflict Northern Ireland and this version is set entirely within the walls of a palace destroyed by war. Written in his distinctive style, McCafferty highlights the human frailties of these mythic characters by drawing attention to the family saga element of the story.

The Prime Cut Productions premiere was directed by Owen McCafferty and designed by Lorna Ritchie. It was performed by Walter McMonagle, Katy Ducker (as Antigone), Rosie McClelland, Ian McElhinney, Conor MacNeill, Paul Mallon, Harry Towb, Eoin McCafferty, Tom Loane, Chris Corrigan, Julia Dearden, Cat Barter, Barry Etherson and Matt Faris.

The Belle of the Belfast City

Bloomsbury Publishing
Type: Text

The Belle of Belfast City is a story of loyalty, both political and familial. At its centre is Dolly, once a music-hall star, whose ballads and memories weave through the play recalling the past. Vi, the elder of her daughters, stayed with her in Belfast, while the younger Rose has travelled all over the world as a journalist. She returns, bringing with her for the first time her mixed-race and illegitimate daughter Belle, who is named for her grandmother’s stage name. The extended family also includes the Protestant Loyalist fundamentalist Jack, and his sister Janet.

Against the background of protests about the Anglo-Irish Agreement, the play confronts different models of Loyalism and allegiance, a rich and honest lament.

The Belle of Belfast City was first produced in 1989 by the Lyric Players Theatre in Belfast.

Closing Time

Nick Hern Books
Type: Text

Owen McCafferty's Closing Time is a tender portrait of love, dignity and emotional damage set in a Belfast pub. It was first performed at the National Theatre, London, on 9 September 2002. Performances took place in the Lyttelton Loft as part of the National Theatre’s Transformation Season.

The play is set in a 'grubby pub/hotel' owned by feisty but fading Vera and her permanently half-drunk husband Ronnie. The pub provides a sanctuary from the outside world for those who live or drink there. Images on the large-screen television (which is always on, but with its sound muted) tell of Belfast’s ‘transformation’ after years of sectarian violence. But as the drinks flow and night closes in, the reality of life sinks in and everybody’s ability to cope with each other and themselves is eroded.

The National Theatre premiere was directed by James Kerr and designed by Rae Smith. It was performed by Pam Ferris, Patrick O’Kane, Jim Norton, Lalor Roddy and Kieran Ahern.

Clowns: a Sequel to Joyriders

Bloomsbury Publishing
Type: Text

Clowns is the sequel to Joyriders, reuniting its characters on the eve of the first IRA ceasefire, eight years after Maureen’s death.

The Youth Training Scheme centre has become the Lagan Mill Shopping Centre, and Arthur is about to open his new café-bar. Sandra returns from London where she has been working as a stand-up comedian, telling jokes about Irish people to make the English laugh. She and the play are haunted by the ghost of Maureen, a raw, mocking reminder of the tragedy that sent Sandra away. It is a play about the moment between history and future, its characters trapped by the pain of the past but faintly hopeful about an end to the conflict which has defined their lives.

Clowns was first performed in 1996 in The Room at the Orange Tree, Richmond.

Cold Comfort

Nick Hern Books
Type: Text

Owen McCafferty’s short play Cold Comfort is a monologue about a man returning to his native Belfast for his father's funeral. It was first performed by Prime Cut Productions Theatre Company at the Old Museum Arts Centre in Belfast in May 2005.

The play is performed on an empty stage 'but for three simple wooden chairs and a coffin'. Kevin Toner is a washed-up, hard-drinking bricklayer who has returned to Belfast after years of living in Kilburn, London. He has come to attend his father’s funeral. Alone onstage with the coffin bearing his father’s remains, his trusty whisky always to hand, he begins one last conversation with his ‘da’ as he takes an often painful trip down memory lane. A chair is transformed into his mother as he plagues her with questions as to why she left the family home, and another becomes his estranged wife, Theresa, with whom he shared a drink problem. As Kevin slowly grows more inebriated, a portrait emerges of a man grown haggard and bitter from his lonely existence, and from a family tragedy for which he shares the guilt.

The Prime Cut premiere was directed by Owen McCafferty and designed by David Craig. It was performed by Patrick O'Kane.

Did You Hear the One About the Irishman...?

Bloomsbury Publishing
Type: Text

Did You Hear the One About the Irishman . . . ? is a painful love story divided by sectarianism, and punctuated by the tasteless racist jokes of an anti-Irish comedian.

Allison’s family don’t want her to marry Brian, a Catholic whose brother is serving a life sentence for terrorist offences. Brian’s family don’t want him to marry Allison, as she is a Protestant, and the niece of a Unionist politician. The play parallels scenes of their two families, doubling characters to bring together two groups so impossibly divided. Allison and Brian’s brilliant optimistic hope that they will rise above the feud becomes heartbreaking as the play shows that the perpetuation of conflict is more powerful than either of them.

Did You Hear the One About the Irishman . . . ? was first produced during a Royal Shakespeare Company tour of America in 1985; this revised version was first performed in 1987 at the King’s Head Theatre, London.

Joyriders

Bloomsbury Publishing
Type: Text

Joyriders is the moving, tragicomic story of four teenagers taking part in a Youth Training Programme in Belfast, 1986, surrounded by the violence of The Troubles. When unemployment seems their most likely prospect, it is difficult for them not to be cynical about a training scheme which seems little more than a cheap way to keep them off the streets. Some of them sometimes dare to wish for greater things, but others find that growing up surrounded by violence and crime does not leave much room for hope.

The play, with its refreshing focus on working-class young people, was inspired by Reid’s visits to Youth Training Programmes and the Divis Community Centre in Belfast in the 1980s; the songs were written and first performed by residents of Divis Flats. It opened in 1986 at the Tricycle Theatre in London. The sequel Clowns revisits the characters eight years later.

My Name, Shall I Tell You My Name?

Bloomsbury Publishing
Type: Text

My Name, Shall I Tell You My Name has only two characters, a woman and her grandfather many miles apart but speaking their reminiscences together in a tender and moving duet. Accompanied by voices from Andrea’s childhood, they recount how she grew up with the war stories of her Protestant loyalist grandfather, learning to be proud of where she came from, but discovering that there are new places to go as well. It is a simple and beautiful play, an aching cry of pacifism, full of love, pride and regret.

The play was first produced in Belfast for BBC Radio 4 in 1987; the first stage production was in 1989 at the Dublin Theatre Festival.

Observatory

Bloomsbury Publishing
Type: Text

A gothic science-fiction thriller, Observatory details the entangled lives of four people across two centuries.

The play is set at the Armagh Observatory and Museum for Astronomy and Natural Philosophy, in both 1799 and 1999. Historian Jon McKenna, hired to compile a computerised catalogue of the Observatory archives, finds his life becoming entangled with that of Nicola McLoughlin, assistant astronomer at the Observatory. Together they work to uncover the two-hundred-year-old story of astronomer Archibald Hamilton and his assistant Robert Hogg – man of science, man of God, and revolutionary. The Observatory, a symbol of both science and religion, becomes the setting for a powerful exploration of nationhood and revolution, love and betrayal.

Daragh Carville’s play was first performed in 1999 at the Peacock Theatre, Dublin.

Shibboleth

Nick Hern Books
Type: Text

Stacey Gregg's Shibboleth is a play about working-class life in Belfast, and the impact of a globalised economy on a city divided both physically and culturally. It was co-commissioned by the Abbey Theatre, Dublin, and the Goethe-Institut, and first performed during the Dublin Theatre Festival on the Peacock stage at the Abbey Theatre on 7 October 2015.

The play is set in Belfast in the present. A group of construction workers is building an extension to the Peace Wall that separates 'Themens' from 'Usens'. When Polish worker Yuri’s daughter starts having serious problems with her boyfriend, they rally round in support. But good intentions can easily go too far…

In an Afterword to the published script, Gregg writes: 'In 2008 the Abbey Theatre and the Goethe-Institut commissioned me as part of a European-wide response to the anniversary of the fall of the Berlin Wall. My subject was the interface barriers that separate communities across our region. Unlike other barriers of international conflict, this wall is generally wanted by the communities around it, restricting movement but not vital supplies, a nuisance to most, an oddity that no one feels strongly enough about to address wholeheartedly. ... Brick by brick by brick by I grew up among the bricks, the sand, the men. Boundaries and no-go zones criss-crossed the landscape of my childhood. ... The play didn’t present itself, but it knew it was a cacophony, chaos and bacon butties and men on a worksite building a wall. I called it Shibboleth, a Hebrew word for words or customs one tribe uses to mark itself apart from others.'

The Abbey Theatre premiere was directed by Hamish Pirie and designed by Paul Keogan. The cast was Piotr Baumann (as Yuri), Rhys Dunlop, Charlie Farrell, Sophie Harkness, Vincent Higgins, Andy Kellegher, Conor MacNeill, Louise Mathews, Jake O’Loughlin, Kerri Quinn and Cara Robinson.

Born of a flamboyant regional nationalism, the Ulster Literary Theatre (ULT) was founded in 1904. The first theatre company to put on stage characters that were ordinary Ulster people, it did so against a spate of theatre-building occasioned by a variety and music hall boom. The Empire Theatre opened in 1894, the Matcham-designed Grand Opera House in 1895 and the Royal Hippodrome in 1907. Meanwhile, the latest incarnation of the century-old Theatre Royal had become a home to Melodrama. Within a few years, however, most would be losing the battle with the cinema, the Royal becoming a picture-house in 1913 and the Hippodrome in 1931. It was the ULT, then, rather than the popular theatre, that set a pattern which would endure longest throughout the century: that of a theatre struggling to articulate an artistic and political line presenting its society's ‘own way of things’. From the very beginning, this was problematic. The founders had initially designated the group the Ulster branch of Yeats’s Irish Literary Theatre and it was only when snubbed by him that they renamed the company in 1904 the Ulster Literary Theatre – and the debate began: was its work, by playwrights such as Rutherford Mayne and Gerald McNamara (1865–1938), presenting an Ulster or an Irish way? Were its players part of a national or a regional theatre? Never resolved, the original nationalist propagandist aims rapidly fell away and the company's emphasis increasingly fell on the social realities around it. It attracted a galaxy of talent and successfully premiered comedies, tragedies, farce, melodrama and satire to popular acclaim. After a decline it was renamed again, in 1915 as the more modest Ulster Theatre. Further decline led to disintegration in the 1930s. Some former ULT members joined the Belfast Repertory Theatre Company, a resident company of the Empire Theatre founded in 1929 which briefly assumed the mantle of new writing. In the sense that it presented a set of working-class dramas about urban Belfast to a working-class Empire audience, its plays were unique events. This was particularly the case with the popular work of Thomas Carnduff, a Belfast shipyard worker who reportedly utilized everyday Ulster speech for the first time in the city's drama. Despite such popularity, with regular tours to Dublin’s Abbey Theatre and ambitions to become a form of national theatre, the Belfast Rep closed in 1937; the Empire itself struggled on as a variety theatre until 1961, when it was demolished. None the less, again a line continued. Among the former Rep members were some of the finest actors in the Ulster theatre; together with other, amateur players they became part of the influential Ulster Group Theatre. Created in 1940, this company premièred a significant amount of new work by Ulster writers such as Joseph Tomelty, George Shiels and St John Ervine. It acquired a strong reputation for ensemble playing, and members went on to achieve stage and screen recognition both at home and abroad. In 1946 the Belfast Arts Theatre was founded by Hubert and Dorothy Wilmot to be an international repertory theatre, and presented an impressive roll-call of writers such as Sartre, Salacrou, Cocteau and Borchert until its move to larger premises in 1961. Thereafter it became a home for popular entertainment, and remained so until the latest spate of the Troubles began.

The final company in the mid-century Belfast theatre triumvirate was the Lyric Players Theatre. Founded by Mary O'Malley in her own house in 1951, this was dedicated to poetic drama, particularly that of Yeats. It staged challenging programmes of Irish and international work in the capacity of a private theatre until 1968, when it acquired a new purpose-built home. Unfortunately, this was also the year in which the Troubles reignited. During the early, particularly brutal disturbances in Belfast, every theatre in the city except the Lyric went dark. The Group company, in any case, had collapsed in 1960, when a furore arose over Sam Thompson's Over the Bridge, which overtly had sectarianism as its theme. The board refused to stage it, in a decision perceived as thinly disguised state censorship. Few other new plays with strong political ideology had been staged in the previous decades, and so the Ulster theatre approached the 1970s with little practical experience of direct original representation of the political life of their community. This was to change sharply in the next 30 years. In the difficult 1970s and early 1980s, plays were staged at the Lyric by writers such as John Boyd, Patrick Galvin, Christina Reid, Graham Reid, Stewart Parker and Martin Lynch which directly addressed the socio-political realities around them. In the 1980s other companies did likewise, particularly Charabanc (founded 1983), whose early new work was collectively written out of the life of working-class communities in the city. Their productions, such as Somewhere Over the Balcony (1987) set in Belfast's Divis Flats, reacquainted a whole new Belfast audience with theatre. It regularly toured internationally and launched the career of playwright Marie Jones, who enjoyed much success with Stones in His Pockets, first seen in 1996 and rewritten in 1999 for a production that went on to London and New York. The late 1980s and early 1990s saw the arrival of a clutch of new independent companies, including Tinderbox and Prime Cut; the former has become Northern Ireland's main originator of new writing, while the latter presents international work. Replay theatre in education company has commissioned an impressive amount of new writing, while Kabosh focuses on a more physical style of theatre. Throughout, the Belfast Festival at Queen's University has brought international theatre, opera and dance companies to the city each year; events are regularly staged at the Grand Opera House, which was magnificently restored in 1980 with government funds to become the principal theatre in Northern Ireland for such large-scale performances. The Group Theatre, meanwhile, was re-opened in 1976 to become the home of amateur drama, amateurs having done much to keep theatre alive during the Troubles.

At the end of one century and the start of a new one – a time of ‘not peace, not war’ in Belfast audience figures were increasing. New civic spaces, such as the Belfast Waterfront Hall (1997), were opened as part of official attempts to rehouse the Belfast arts in a planned, comprehensive way. Tellingly, older venues such as the Belfast Civic Arts Theatre, kept alive by funders during the Troubles, were closed (1999) as part of this process. New play-writing voices, such as Owen McCafferty and Damian Gorman, have emerged; and, from a Protestant working-class Unionist background, Gary Mitchell, with In a Little World of Our Own (1997) and Force of Change (2000), is making an impact after a century in which theatre in Ulster predominantly saw itself in an Irish context. Meanwhile, companies such as Dubbeljoint are causing regular controversy by presenting single-identity work which is not seeking to offer a ‘balanced’ picture, as were many of the so-called ‘Troubles plays’, but looks to make particular experiences, such as that of the predominantly nationalist West Belfast, understood. In so doing, the company has worked regularly with community theatre, a sector that has become one of the strongest in Belfast theatre. It regularly features work from both Protestant and Catholic working-class communities, both of which previously lacked much theatrical articulation.

from Ophelia Byrne, The Continnum Companion to Twentieth Century Theatre, ed. Colin Chambers (London, 2002).