'Their ambition was quite astounding'

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The new Lyric builds on a bedrock of success that began in the 1950s and continues today, writes UNA BRADLEY

WHEN THE curtain rises on Belfast’s new Lyric theatre and the hubbub among the VIP audience simmers down, those with a keen eye might notice one among them slump in his seat, giddy with relief, euphoria and exhaustion. Mark Carruthers has led two lives over the past eight years. His public face ­is as an anchorman for BBC NI. Away from the camera, however, in his capacity as chairman of the Lyric board, he has been spearheading one of the biggest fundraising campaigns in the arts ever to take place in Northern Ireland.

With the help of two fellow board members, he set about amassing £18.1m, almost a third from private donations, to build a new home for the Lyric after it was unanimously agreed the old building, a landmark along the river Lagan, was unfit for purpose. Carruthers was recently awarded an OBE in recognition of his efforts.

Designed by Dublin architects O’Donnell + Tuomey, the new edifice rises majestically from the old site, casting stunning reflections across the water. For those professionally involved with the theatre, the sense of one era ending and another beginning seems almost overwhelming.

“The Lyric is a very special place,” says Dan Gordon, one of its leading actors. “Its major triumph is surviving a war. It stayed open through the Troubles, when the lights were out at Glengall Bus Station and people couldn’t move around because of barricades and roadblocks. And Mary O’Malley would insist on the show going on, even when six people had turned up.”

Such dedication comes as no surprise to those who know the story of O’Malley who, along with her husband Pearse, founded the Lyric Players in their home in the 1950s. Along with the Group theatre, this new rep was to become the most influential of drama societies.

“Their ambition was quite astounding,” comments Gordon. “There they were, in this wee backwater, grappling with Shakespeare, Machiavelli and Lorca.” The embryonic Lyric attracted talent from a range of disciplines – Seamus Heaney, Michael Longley, Brian Friel, Gladys McCabe, TP Flanagan, Basil Blackshaw, John Hewitt, Neil Shawcross. If there wasn’t a play on, you could catch a poetry recital, or an art class – provided the artists were not painting the sets. When these trailblazers moved into a spanking new theatre in 1968, in the politically neutral area of Stranmillis, Heaney read a poem he had written for the occasion.

Who could have dreamed that over 40 years later, and as a Nobel laureate, he would once again be reading that verse to celebrate the threshold stone being laid in a second-generation Lyric? So what were the highlights of this legendary theatre, no longer a rep, but still the only full-time professional, producing theatre in the North?

“For me it was the emergence of the Northern urban voice,” says former artistic director Paula McFetridge, whose credits include the first co-production between the Lyric and Dublin’s Abbey. “It was Martin Lynch’s Dockers, Christina Reid’s Joyriders, Graham Reid’s The Hidden Curriculum. These were seminal plays and they blew my mind when I went to the theatre as a young woman and heard actors talk in my accent, about things that were happening right here, right now.”

Dan Gordon agrees. “Martin Lynch, John Boyd, Stewart Parker, Christina Reid, Graham Reid – they represented a major sea-change. They used the language of everyday. I mean, Christina Reid’s Tea In A China Cupwas about three generations of working-class women – not only that, but Protestant women.” Other productions likely to live on in the memory include Brian Friel’s Philadelphia, Here I Come!(starring a young Liam Neeson), Patrick Galvin’s We Do It For Love, and Frank McGuinness’s Observe The Sons of Ulster Marching Towards the Sommealthough, strikingly, none of these three premiered at the theatre. Showcasing more new writing will be a priority under the new regime, says Mark Carruthers, and to that end a writer-in-residence post has been funded – anonymously – for at least five years.

The Lyric has spawned commercial, as well as critical, success. Marie Jones’s A Night In November, a one-man show originally starring Dan Gordon as a Belfast Protestant cheering on the Ireland football team during World Cup 1994, was a runaway success and has been in almost-constant production around the world. Her follow-up, Stones In His Pockets, was arguably even more successful, with a film in the pipeline.

Apart from Jones, and her actor husband Ian McElhinney, the rollcall of alumni who have gone on to bigger things includes Adrian Dunbar, Ciaran Hinds and James Nesbitt. According to Mark Carruthers, the fundraising target would never have been met without their behind-the-scenes input. The theatre’s most famous ‘old boy’ and now its patron, Liam Neeson, was particularly instrumental, hosting a series of glitzy dinner parties at the Manhattan homes of well-connected diaspora like Loretta Brennan Glucksman, raising as much as £250,000 a pop.

As with Dublin’s Abbey the Lyric has had its well-documented financial difficulties but according to Carruthers, part of the deal for going forward into the new building was that all debts would be cleared. A review of how the theatre is managed has taken place in parallel with the new building, resulting in a board shake-up to reflect more financial expertise.

For Dan Gordon, it’s definitely time to pop the Champagne corks. “We deserve this. We have lost so many theatres, and seen them replaced with multi-purpose arts centres, which is just not the same thing. “The Lyric is a professional theatre and it’s very important it remains so.”


The Lyric opens on May 1st.

For programme details see lyrictheatre.co.uk

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