Disturbing the peace


ONCE AGAIN, the Northern Irish stage is a site of conflict. A community riven with religious extremism, political distrust and sectarianism is tearing itself apart. It is May, 2011, and as Conall Morrison’s staging of Arthur Miller’s hardy classic The Cruciblemarks the opening of the new Lyric Theatre, with its magnificent and much celebrated design, it raises the question whether this represents a new dawn for theatre in the North, or business as usual?

 The production has received five nominations in The Irish TimesIrish Theatre Awards, more than any other, with a further special nomination for the Lyric for “bringing new energy to theatre in Northern Ireland”.

The Cruciblecertainly allowed for an uncluttered appreciation of the new theatre – allied by Sabine Dargent’s set – while its performers’ stew of Northern and southern Irish accents encouraged the audience to see itself in the folds of Miller’s drama. At the time, however, dissenting voices wondered if it gave the Lyric – and by extension contemporary theatre in Northern Ireland – a fresh start.

“Oh, you should be opening with a new play. You should be going with an Irish play,” is how Lyric’s artistic director Richard Croxford recalls the criticism. “But the resonances of The Cruciblewere so great without having to hit people over the head with them. We wanted something epic for this epic new building, something that would show off our brilliant local talent and what the stage could do.”

It may also have been an elegant response to how a theatre might honour expectations, yet shift perceptions. For those inclined to read allegory into allegory, here was a different kind of Troubles play, delivered with tremendous confidence by an enviably resourced theatre. Followed with a series of high-profile, slick entertainments – such as Kenneth Branagh and Rob Bryden in The Painkiller(which turned violence into slapstick), Adrian Dunbar directing Brendan at the Chelsea, the bawdy musical Molly Wobbly’s Tit Factoryand the family-friendly The Little Prince– Croxford’s programming clearly aimed to broaden its audience appeal.

Did it work? Christine Monk, one of the judges of the theatre awards, caused a stir when she said of Northern Irish theatre: “I’m fascinated how it barely breaks through into the theatre consciousness in the south at all.”

Northern Irish theatre may have more pressing concerns, such as limited funding and the competitive juggernaut of British commercial theatre, than luring audiences up from Dublin. But there’s a certain discrepancy worth highlighting: citizens of the Republic will gladly cross the Border in pursuit of better-value groceries or dental work, but don’t dawdle in significant numbers to take in a show. Are there borders to the imagination that are more difficult to cross?

“We’re always preoccupied with whether we’re pre-Troubles, post-Troubles, or peace process-oriented,” says David Grant, lecturer in drama at Queen’s University and a former director of the Lyric. “Obviously that grand narrative of 30 years of violence casts a long shadow. So much of what the theatre is trying to wrestle with in the North is whether to try and disregard the heritage of violence and say we are now in a new dispensation, or whether to try and acknowledge that the surface narrative of the peace process has hidden an awful lot of unresolved tensions and difficulties.”

He points to the writing of Gary Mitchell, who depicts working-class Protestant experience, the testimony of women affected by the Troubles in Teya Sepinuck’s Theatre of Witnessprogramme at the Derry Playhouse and Tinderbox’s outreach programme Turning the Page, in which both sides of the community exchange new scripts for performance. “The arts do have a role to articulate, at a much more intimate level, some of those unresolved tensions.”

Responding to the nominations last week on BBC Radio Ulster programme Arts Extra, host Marie-Louise Muir wondered whether the new Lyric building had simply attracted attention to already consistently high standards of Northern Irish theatre, or if the long concerns of drama in the North had fatigued outsiders with its focus on 30 years of Troubles. The assumed answer to both questions, however, was there’s more to Northern Irish theatre.

While rallying around the renewed energy of the Lyric, the independent sector has been defined both by it and against it. David Grant points out that while Charabanc and Tinderbox were pioneers of the independent scene in the 1980s, its flourishing came in the 1990s when companies such as Prime Cut, Ransom, Kabosh, Big Telly, DubbelJoint and Cahoots were formed, while the Lyric staggered through a series of artistic directorships. (“Being artistic director of the Lyric has a lot in common with being a Premiership football manager,” Grant once joked.)

Those companies were rarely slow to engage with the Troubles and their legacy, but they also had wider concerns. Founded 20 years ago, Prime Cut was “a reaction against precisely that: the introspection of our society”, says its artistic director Emma Jordan. “But a lot has changed since then.”

Like the Lyric’s Crucible, a 1995 Prime Cut production of Ariel Dorfman’s Death and the Maidensought local resonance in international work and it has maintained a focus on contemporary international theatre since – David Harrower’s Blackbird, staged last year, was unlucky to miss out on a nomination, conceded Monk on Arts Extra. For 18 years, it has toured its work on both sides of the Border, including the first Irish tour of Marina Carr’s Woman and Scarecrow. “She’s one of the greatest Irish female playwrights,” Jordan says of Carr, “but unless you go to Dublin you never have the opportunity to see her work.”

The real obstacle to touring is not geographic, but economic: the exchange rate between the euro and sterling is volatile and subsidies from institutions north and south for a costly undertaking are in short supply.

“It’s bizarre,” says Croxford, “but literally crossing the Border costs a fortune. We’re supported [by the Arts Council of Northern Ireland] to do work in the North, not to take work out. We’ve made a strategic priority that we will make at least one tour around the whole of Ireland, north and south of the Border each year, so we are starting to put ourselves into people’s consciousness in the Republic.”

With the laudable exception of the Abbey, which brought Carmel Winters’ B For Babyand Mark O’Rowe’s Terminusto Northern Ireland in recent years (and co-produced Hamlet with the Lyric in 2005), southern productions journeying north are similarly rare. Even a company as committed to touring as Druid hasn’t visited Northern Ireland since 1998, when its production of Vincent Woods’s At the Black Pig’s Dykewas interrupted by audience members in Derry, who staged an alternative ending that stressed British involvement in the play’s otherwise internecine violence.

In that disruptive context, a division based simply on unfavourable exchange rates might even seem like progress, but a lack of exchange reinforces barriers. “One visit to Dublin every two years is not sustainable,” says Emma Jordan. “It’s a challenge in terms of audiences getting to know your work as a company.”

The quality of Northern Irish theatre, however, owes something to unity and something to division. “It’s healthier than it’s every been,” says Jordan. “There’s huge support for each other’s work.” Tinderbox, for instance, administers the Joint Sectoral Dramaturgy Project, funded to aid the artistic development of new work across the sector. “It all feeds into a general upping of confidence,” she adds.

“I think that, in the past, people haven’t regarded Northern Irish work as well as stuff that’s made in the Republic,” considers Croxford, pointing to less favourable funding conditions and a talent drain during the Troubles. “But people are starting to return.”

So are the resources, with regional venues spread throughout the North and, in Belfast, the two busy spaces of the Lyric to be joined by the two performance spaces and four galleries of the long-awaited Metropolitan Arts Centre in April. “We’re peripatetic by nature and it’s difficult to nurture a loyal audience without a base,” says Jordan. “This is a massive step forward for independent theatre in Belfast.”

A colleague of David Grant’s once wryly remarked, “All this talk about a Peace Process. . . when are we going to see a Peace Product?” To judge from the Lyric’s success with The Crucibleand the attention it has garnered for Northern Irish theatre, there are some benefits to disturbing the peace.

Northern rising: Upcoming productions


With just under 400 seats in the Northern Bank auditorium, the Lyric has to reconcile artistic and commercial concerns. So far the new building has balanced star names and big productions and Mick Gordon’s production of Brian Friel’s Chekhov adaptation does both, with the peerless Conleth Hill cast in the role of luckless Vanya.

The Lyric Theatre, Feb 4-Mar 11


Following last year’s off-site production Guidelines for a Long and Happy Life, Tinderbox’s next production at the Belfast Festival at Queen’s is a play with live music. The script is by Stacey Gregg (writer of the Abbey’s Perve) with songs from Katie Richardson.

The Mac, October 2012


A new play from the never knowingly restrained Rosemary Jenkinson, set in the eventful year of 1912, when the Titanicwas completed, launched and sunk and half a million men and women signed the Ulster Covenant in protest of Home Rule.

The Lyric Theatre, TBA


Prime Cut revives last year’s production of Owen McCafferty’s moral comedy for a nationwide tour.

Four Belfast tillers, demoralised by low-level and thankless work, get the opportunity to fence some of their excess wares for modest gain but quickly turn against each other.

Touring nationwide from March to April

 Theatre Awards

The Irish TimesIrish Theatre Awards winners will be announced at the Royal Hospital, Kilmainham on Sunday, February 26th