A peace of the action
There was Gary Mitchell, thinking all that polemic was in the past. The playwright whose career has been symbiotically linked with Ulster loyalism – from his stage and radio plays and TV films to the real-life drama of his entire family being forced out of their homes by UDA paramilitaries – had decided to reinvent himself. No more writing about working-class Protestantism, he decreed. It was time to tackle universal themes.
And the week his comeback play – a darkly comic review of 2012 – opened at Belfast’s Lyric theatre, all hell broke loose over the flying of the union flag at Belfast City Hall. Mitchell was forced to grapple with all he couldn’t leave behind. “You gotta laugh,” says the 47-year-old in an uncompromising Belfast accent. “Here we had our nice little satire about the Olympics, the golf, the Titanic centenary . . . but my co-writers [Colin Murphy, Dan Gordon] and I had deliberately left air in the script in case anything like this happened.
“It’s that kind of show. We couldn’t just allude to events up to November and then shy away from what was erupting outside the theatre doors.”
Forget Turkey (we’re going to Phuket this Christmas) is not exactly light, family entertainment – it carries an age recommendation of 18-plus and is described by Mitchell as “extremely dark”.
It’s the first time his work, albeit a collaboration, has been on a main stage in almost a decade. Despite once having been the toast of Irish and British theatre, Mitchell hit a dry patch after he and his extended family were told in 2005 by “rogue elements” of the UDA to leave Rathcoole, a loyalist estate on the outskirts of Belfast.
At first, the story was so shocking – here was a man who had tried to give voice to a community only to be royally shafted by elements within it – it lent Mitchell a certain kudos. Once the news coverage faded, however, so did the commissions.
In the years since, Mitchell has had only two plays staged. “No one wanted to know about loyalism anymore,” he recalls. “It was the peace process, and everything had to be on-message. I’d always had a hard job getting commissions from within Northern Ireland, but even the places that had welcomed me – Dublin, London – they weren’t returning my calls.”
It was a bitter pill for Mitchell. At the height of his success, three of his plays were made into TV films. Hollywood producers offered to buy the rights for In A Little World Of Our Own but he turned them down. Why?
“I thought they’d make a bollocks of it,” he says. “It’s that old Prod paranoia – I could have named my price, but I didn’t trust them not to f**k it up.”
The peace process and living in hiding weren’t the only factors in Mitchell’s slide from the public eye. He got married, to Alison, becoming stepfather to her two children. They went on to have three more children – the youngest of whom is now four.