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.
His Christmas show may be frothy, but he sees it as an easing back into a new phase of his working life. He’s writing prolifically again and has a number of projects on the boil. One is a play for Derry’s City of Culture programme, this year, about a group of middle-aged dads who reform their punk band. And no, it’s not based on the Undertones.
He was due to have a play premiered at Belfast’s newest arts space, the Mac, early in the new year. The story of Belfast’s best-known comic, James Young, it was dropped after the allegation that Young was a paedophile – which is contained in Mitchell’s play – broke in the media.
The recent loyalist street protests make him wonder if much has changed since he left Rathcoole. “On the one hand, you have to say that people who are going out rioting are 100 per cent responsible for their negative image in the media,” he says.
“But you also have to ask, are there people who enjoy portraying them like that? Is it a case of, ‘here’s your typical Ulster Protestant, here’s your typical idiot’? It’s not so much that I’m saying that the news coverage of recent events has been skewed, but loyalists believe it is skewed and so almost everything they do is a self-fulfilling prophecy. The loyalist community is deeply self-destructive. It’s suspicious of culture and suspicious of education.”
This is a pervasive theme in Mitchell’s work. It’s also his story. He left school at 15 because “that’s what you did. Middle-class Protestants got educated to run the country. Our role was to get a job.”
Mitchell’s coming of age coincided with the 1980s recession and he was unemployed for eight years. Eventually, he got a job in the NI civil service.
“What’s the lowest-ranking job in the civil service?” he asks, with a twinkle in his eye. “That’s right, a clerk. I was a clerk’s assistant. After a long time, it dawned on me that I would never be promoted, never get out of there. So I decided to become an actor.”
To the horror of his mates – “what are you, gay?” – Mitchell joined an amateur drama group and, on the advice of a fellow member, entered a radio-drama writing competition, only to win first prize. He never stopped writing and has just finished his 40th play and a pilot drama series which he’s hoping BBC NI will pick up.After years of moving from one secret location to another, the Mitchells have settled. “Yeah, things are looking up,” he says.
Forget Turkey (we’re going to Phuket this Christmas) runs at the Lyric theatre, Belfast until January 13th, 2013. See lyrictheatre.co.uk