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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