LAGAN: Writing Northern Ireland – by Stacey Gregg

Lagan

Lagan by Stacey Gregg (£9.99)

Stacey Gregg is a Belfast-born playwright whose new play – Laganmarks her UK debut, premiering tonight at Ovalhouse, South London. A kaleidoscope of stories from post-Troubles Belfast, Lagan is an intimate and absorbing portrait of a city with a past like no other. Stacey reveals her desire to ‘write’ her hometown…

Lagan sprang from a desire to record stories of moments from the lives of characters definitively of Northern Ireland, today. Sounds simple. But Northern Ireland finds itself in a stage of transition, letting go of its recent troubled past, wondering what it is, and what it might be. In many ways, this is gloriously banal: it is worrying about water tax and recycling, like any other country with the luxury to do so. It marks a settling-down, an opportunity to reflect and, for some, even a kind of anti-climax. Young men in particular, from both traditions, are left with a sense of uncertainty about what defines them. How does that overused word, ‘identity’, apply now we are post-conflict? Like any event that has lain long and deep in a people’s psyche, it is more complex than this. But across industries and disciplines, many seek to explore or project what the Northern Irish make of themselves now, in what is wryly referred to as Nu-Belfast.

In the late 1990s there was disbelief as the Troubles came to a close. It had dragged on so long Lagan no one thought it possible to see Ian Paisley Snr sitting next to Martin McGuinness, laughing together – laughing! But here we were. Suddenly, previously strangled aspects of the region started to sprout tourism, delis, coffee shops, IKEA. The city has evolved over the past decade, no doubt about it, and the middle class, long muted and diffuse, is now restored. But quickly that familiar, capitalist, intoxicated meta-narrative became the only song Belfast sang: Look! Swishy bars! Posh shops! Bring your business here! The north was alarmed by the collapse of the Irish economy in the south, however shrill ads selling the quaint and the cool (the twee and the twee) doggedly multiply, whilst a substantial swathe of society, specifically the urban poor, continue living at a standard much as before. Attempting to write about Northern Ireland, and in particular my hometown, Belfast, felt increasingly like writing a tale of Two Cities. And rue that you be the killjoy in the corner, going on about the disempowered, community projects, remembering the past…

Lagan production shotsIn order not to get lost in illustrating points or statistics, it is always the truisms to which we return: the personal is political. Simple stories allow the blanks to speak. Meanwhile, from theatre to TV, the elusive commissioning steer seemed to be ‘We’re sick of the Troubles! We’re sick of dour, political, hearth and home, laced with that uneasy pressure to put a balaclava on it.’ There is a fatigue of Northern Ireland as we had got used to seeing it, and simultaneously a curiosity for some kind of retrospective analysis, in order, maybe, to move on. There is possibly also a slightly colonial desire to smooth over that unpleasant chapter and race on to funner, brighter, sexier! etc. An expedient aversion to political engagement, it might get in the way of the merchandise! And yet what of those stock images of youths still kicking off in front of riot police every year? Kids to whom sectarian slurs are as ingrained as their parents generation? To those who are asking, it would seem that class inequality generally is on the rise. But Northern Ireland’s working and/or underclass no longer has the limelight, a platform, a voice.

So, following a peculiar hiatus, it feels as though there is a revived interest in the state of the region and its residual questions, the type of analysis only really possible with a bit of reflection and hindsight. All this said, the texture and conflicts within Lagan are not particular to, but perhaps more present or pressing in the North of Ireland. Its specificity is its universality. Back to water tax and recycling. The devil is in the detail. Retail development, social planning, teen pregnancy… – but amplified by the fact that Northern Ireland is the only country in the UK where abortion is not facilitated; where, as of 2008, there is less than 5.5% integrated schooling; where fundamental Christianity is on the rise in the young; and where many still live with the echoes of something that makes precious more sense now than it did then…

Lagan production shotsLagan opens tonight at Ovalhouse, London, playing until 12th November 2011. *£10 ticket offer (usually £14)* Valid for performances on 29th Oct and Tuesday 1st Nov only. Enter the code ‘HUB’ when booking online, OR, quote via the Box Office: 020 7582 7680.

The NHB playscript is available now, click here to purchase your copy for £9.99 with free UK P&P – add ‘Blog Offer’ in the comments field at checkout (to ensure your discount is applied when the order is processed).

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Adapting classic children’s literature for the stage – by playwright Mike Kenny

Playwright Mike Kenny

Mike Kenny

Adapting classic children’s novels for the stage is no easy feat. But British playwright Mike Kenny has proven that when it works, it can go down like a treat. With a string of roaring successes over the last two years, including current Waterloo Station Theatre smash hit The Railway Children (recently nominated for the Evening Standard‘s ‘Best Night Out’ Theatre Award), last year’s The Wind in the Willows and this year’s Peter Pan for York Theatre Royal. Here, he reflects on the timeless quality of a ‘golden era’ in British children’s literature where his inspiration stems from…

Rob Angell (Father) in The Railway Children. Photo: Karl Andre Photography

Rob Angell (Father) in The Railway Children. Photo: Karl Andre Photography

‘Career’ has always felt like a good word for my life as a playwright, in so much that it has been like a plummet down a mountainside without the benefit of brakes, or steering. I’ve never really been in control of it and often a bit hazy about what’s coming next. One thing that has consistently characterised it is that the majority of my work has been for children and their families, though sometimes that has meant writing for teens in youth clubs, and sometimes for the very young, nursery age and under, sometimes working with contemporary material and at others with traditional tales and fairy stories.

Sarah Quintrell (Roberta) in The Railway Children. Photo: Karl Andre Photography

Sarah Quintrell (Roberta) in The Railway Children. Photo: Karl Andre Photography

Of late it has taken an increasingly fascinating turn. It began when Damien Cruden, the director of the York Theatre Royal, asked me to think about adapting The Railway Children. 

The Railway Children was a revelation to me. It really was. I know people loved the film, but I confess I didn’t. I was 18 when it came out. Its longing for the steam age and its lasting shining sun made me slightly sick. And although Bernard Cribbins is fantastic, Mrs Perks’ comedy Yorkshire accent put the working classes somewhere back in the thirties. It was about posh kids, again. Yawn. The doctor appeared to live in the Parsonage museum in Haworth. Bizarre, did nobody think we’d notice? I didn’t hate it, but I thought it was sentimental tosh and completely irrelevant. It was 1968 for God sake. Think of what was happening in the world! When it was proposed to me for adaptation I was not keen. Then I actually read the book.

THE WIND IN THE WILLOWS production shot

The Wind in the Willows (2011). Photo: Dublinstones photography

Humble pie was duly eaten. The book is great and reads today as fresh and relevant (bad word I know, but it is) as then. I loved it and I loved working on it. I have since been given credit for all sorts of things which are actually there in the original book. Basking in its glow, I became fascinated by other Edwardian children’s classics. I went on to adapt The Wind in the Willows, and this year did a version of J M Barrie’s Peter Pan (both premiered at York Theatre Royal). They were all originally written within a very few years of each other in that strange time between the end of the long reign of Victoria and the start of the First World War, which swept it all away and with it the generation that read those books as children. There is a moment in Peter Pan (cut from the Disney film and the recent movie) when Wendy says ‘we hope our sons will die like English gentlemen’, and we watch the Lost Boys walk the plank singing the National Anthem. In the play where Peter says that death would be an awfully big adventure, it really is a chilling moment. The play grasps a truth about its time and unknowingly predicts an imminent future. Similarly, The Wind in the Willows seems to turn a cool gaze on the near future, when you consider Toad’s obsession with the internal combustion engine. The addiction to motors, such a rarity then, and such a profound threat to the natural world now, becomes the heart of the book. Messing about with boats doesn’t stand a chance.

The Wind in the Willows, 2011 production shot

The Wind in the Willows (2011). Photo: Dublinstones photography

It was a golden age for children’s art. I’m so envious. There was a collection of original works for children that put them at the centre of the action and both entertained and had prophetic force. The train and the car were much the Internet of their day: they changed the world forever, and these writers incorporate them with such ease in forms that embrace realism and fantasy. I suppose I feel that we struggle to match those days, particularly in theatre. So maybe I’m finally trying to influence the onward plummet of my work. Peter Pan was a theatre piece before it was anything else. It, like the other pieces of its time, entered our culture and has never been out of print in the hundred plus years since. I am now minded to take up the gauntlet and try to write something for our own time, which will hopefully have the same longevity. In the meantime, I’ve got my sights set on Little Lord Fauntleroy.

The Railway Children (jacket)

The Railway Children (£8.99)

York Theatre Royal’s production of The Railway Children is currently running at Waterloo Station Theatre in London to January 2012 – ‘Mike Kenny’s adaptation shows his mastery of playwriting for children and families… adults and children alike are enthralled by the clever mix of imagination and reality’ Financial Times – click here for more information and to purchase tickets. The NHB publication of The Railway Children is available now, click here to purchase your copy for just £8 with free UK P&P – add ‘Blog Offer’ in the comments field at checkout (to ensure your discount is applied when the order is processed).

The Wind in the Willows will publish late November 2011. To pre-order your copy for just £8 with free UK P&P please email your required quantity and contact details to orders@nickhernbooks.demon.co.uk and NHB will be in touch shortly!


Spotlight: playwright CONOR McPHERSON

Conor McPherson

Conor McPherson

Playwright Conor McPherson – ‘a writer who can make inarticulacy sound poetic’ (Evening Standard) – returns to the theatre this month with the premiere of his new play The Veil at the National Theatre. We’ve published the playtext along with a striking new edition of his earliest works, McPherson Plays: One, which includes a new foreword by the author. In this extract from the foreword, McPherson looks at why in the nineties the monologue form became so dominant in Irish theatre.

The nineties in Irish theatre will probably always be associated with the monologue. Almost every successful new play that emerged from Ireland at the time had an element of direct storytelling. It was as though the crazy explosion of money and stress was happening too close to us, too fast for us, making it impossible for the mood of the nation to be objectively dramatised in a traditional sense. It could only be expressed in the most subjective way possible because when everything you know is changing, the subjective experience is the only experience.

Production photograph of The Veil, by Conor McPherson, National Theatre, September 2011

Hannah Lambroke (Emily Taafe) and Grandie (Ursula Jones) in The Veil at the National Theatre. Photo by Helen Warner

I would suggest that the hunger for this kind of highly personal work was unprecedented because the whole phenomenon of living in Ireland at the time was unprecedented. It has been argued elsewhere that a secular need flooded the space left by the disgraced Catholic Church and a contemporary dearth of true political leadership. We still had souls, but we just couldn’t trust anyone with them any more. Thus monologue theatre flourished because it was a mirror which took you inside your own eye. The work had to become more private and the humour more painful in order to reflect the mood of an audience who didn’t feel like they were living in a sustainable reality on any level. Big old ‘state of the nation’ plays simply couldn’t have reflected that feeling, I don’t think. The dramatic problem was far subtler than before so the successful plays of the time took a subtler approach.

The Seafarer production at National Theatre, 2006

Jim Norton (Richard), Michael McElhatton (Nicky), Ron Cook (Mr. Lockhart), Conleth Hill (Ivan) in The Seafarer at the National Theatre, 2006. Photo Catherine Ashmore.

As young writers, we knew of Beckett’s great monologue plays and Brian Friel’s iconic Faith Healer, but these were examples of a form rather than the norm. When one considers the tumultuous time in which this form re-emerged and became almost ubiquitous it doesn’t feel like mere coincidence, and I would contend that to dismiss such a sea change in Irish drama is to ignore how well it charted the peculiar history of the Irish mind for its time. And all the more so when one considers how organic and unconscious this movement was. It just happened. The more Ireland’s economic fortunes appeared to catapult us into a twenty-first-century orbit, the more our theatre seemed determined to return us to an almost ancient mode of storytelling.

The Veil: playscript

The Veil (£9.99)

For myself, I haven’t written a monologue play for well over a decade now. This year I am forty and consider myself extraordinarily fortunate to have worked as a playwright for the last twenty years. The hard-won perspective of the intervening time shows me that I thought I was free and independent back then, but now I know I was struggling with history just like everybody else. I used to find it so difficult to even think about my own past work. I always felt the need to look away into the future. But as I enter middle age I look back with a more forgiving regard. I read the very first line of the first play in this volume, which says: ‘I think my overall fucked-upness is my impatience.’ It was true then, and it’s true now, and probably not just for me. And maybe that impatience drew me to the monologue form. Because it could take you right where you wanted to be so fast and keep you there because it just felt real.

Conor McPherson, 2011

Jacket: McPherson Plays 1 (collection)

Mcpherson Plays: One (£12.99)

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Conor McPherson’s latest work – The Veil – is currently running at the National Theatre until 2nd November – click here for more information and to purchase tickets. His earlier play, Dublin Carol, will run at the Trafalgar Studios in London’s West End 8-31 December 2011 (a Donmar Warehouse production), click here for more information and to purchase tickets. 

The NHB publication of The Veil and the new edition of McPherson Plays: One (with a new author Foreword) are available now to purchase. To order your copy with free UK P&P click here and add ‘Blog Offer’ in the comments field at checkout (to ensure your discount is applied when the order is processed).