‘Before and After’: playwrights making sense of Northern Ireland society in change

‘Before and After’: playwrights making sense of Northern Ireland society in change
29 April 2023

Local actors performed before a sold-out house during The Agreement: Before & After, hosted by the Linen Hall Library as part of their Origins & Legacies: The Belfast/Good Friday Agreement series in commemoration of the 25th anniversary of the Belfast/Good Friday Agreement. The performance featured readings from selected plays 25 years prior to the Agreement and 25 years since, curated by Dan Gordon and Ian McElhinney. The event was held at the Grand Opera House and sponsored by the Heritage Fund.

Noticeably absent, actor Ian McElhinney of Derry Girls fame was unable to attend due to a scheduling conflict. Gordon offered McElinney’s apologies before introducing the cast. Featured in the evening’s show were: Ian Beattie; Bernadette Brown; Michael Condron; Maria Connolly; Rosin Gallagher; Tim Loane; Matthew McElhinney; and Louise Parker.

In his welcome address, Gordon posed the question, how have plays in Northern Ireland changed since the passing of the agreement? Rather than offering a definitive answer, Gordon let the audience judge, allowing the plays to speak for themselves. He then introduced the first selected reading of the night, excerpted from The Freedom of the City by playwright Brian Friel, produced in 1973 and set in Derry/Londonderry. 

One and two at a time, the actors moved to lighted podiums and expertly performed dramatic readings of notable scenes from the plays. The excerpts ranged from sombre and dramatic to hopeful and comedic, offering the audience a varied breadth of theatrical works for consideration of the proposed question. 

The hour-long show featured the following plays and playwrights: Spokesong (1975) by Stewart Parker; The Interrogation of Ambrose Fogarty (1982) by Martin Lynch; Tea in a China Cup (1983) by Christina Reid; Remembrance (1986) by Graham Reid; Mumbo Jumbo (1986) by Robin Glendinning; A Night in November (1994) by Marie Jones; Loved Ones (1995) by Damian Gorman; At the Base of the Pyramid (1997) by Gary Mitchell; Caught Red Handed (2002) by Tim Loane; Girls and Dolls (2006) by Lisa McGee; Lally the Scut (2015) by Abbie Spallen; Monsters Dinosaurs Ghosts (2015) by Jimmy McAleavey; Shibboleth (2015) by Stacy Greg; Cyprus Avenue (2016) by David Ireland; Gold Tier Sky (2017) by Pearse Elliott; The Border Game (2021) by Michael Patrick and Oisín Kearney; Billy Boy (2022) by Rosemary Jenkinson; and Agreement (2023) by Owen McCafferty. 

The included plays focused on a variety of themes related to the Troubles and life after the Agreement passed, including grief, loss, mental illness, addiction, identity, family, and sectarianism, to name a few. Heavy topics were well-balanced with humour without undermining their impact. Even as the performing actors did their readings, the seated actors could be seen smiling and enjoying the work. 

In a particularly profound moment, the reading from Stacy Greg’s “Shibboleth” reminded patrons of the aspiration for the peace walls in Belfast to come down by 2023. Still they remain, a glum testament of unfulfilled promises and the work left to be done. 

Concluded with a deserved, rousing applause, the evening was a celebration of the rich legacy of Northern Irish playwrights and theatre, both during the Troubles and since. It served as a commemoration of the resiliency and ingenuity of artists who continue to create in the worst of circumstances and help make sense of a society in the midst of change. 

How have plays changed in Northern Ireland? Whatever the answer, there is no doubt the playwrights of Northern Ireland have left an indelible mark.

“Origins & Legacies: The Belfast/Good Friday Agreement” series and exhibition will continue through 31 May 2023.

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