Archives for February 2012

Brian Friel

Marie-Louise Muir | 18:28 UK time, Tuesday, 28 February 2012

It was heartening to see Brian Friel at the opening of his version of "Uncle Vanya" at the Lyric Theatre Belfast. After the play was over, he took time outside with director Mick Gordon. As both huddled out of the wind at the front of the building, hands cupped around the lit match, first to light Friel's trademark cigar, next Mick's cigarette, I looked out at them, wondering what they were discussing. Obviously the play itself, the press night staging always a nervous night. Was Friel happy? Was he questioning anything? His face was inscrutable. It was a conversation I could only watch through the glass. Friel has long eschewed media interviews. Every request I ask of him, in all my years anchoring "Arts Extra", has been politely declined through the most courteous letters. I treasure those very kind rejection letters. But, oh, for one moment, to metaphorically cup my hands and shield the lit match from the wind, and ignite the airwaves with a Brian Friel in conversation. I can only imagine, with my nose pressed up against the glass, inside, looking out.

Marie Jones & Sam Millar

Marie-Louise Muir | 15:49 UK time, Wednesday, 8 February 2012

Two new Northern Irish plays opened last week in Belfast, both set in the city, and both from the same production company. Marie Jones' trademark lacerating wit and black humour in "Fly me to the Moon" made hard hitting statements about the state of today's care system - and the workers who get paid very little for very tough jobs. It could have been in any UK city. It just happened to be Belfast. Sam Millar's "Brothers in Arms" couldn't have been anywhere else but here.

Two brothers who have been Republican activists are now on opposite sides. One brother is a Sinn Fein MLA, suited and booted and sold-out to Stormont, according to his older brother. The older brother, who served 14 years in the H Blocks during the Hunger Strikes, hasn't gone with the new political dispensation and is part of the so-called dissident movement. What struck me was how differently the two playwrights approached contemporary Northern Irish society. For Jones, it was about tapping into a cultural shift in values and the break down of the extended family. In other words, how we are cared for, how we will be cared for and by whom? Her central characters are two female care workers, women who could easily be grand-daughters of the women who worked in the Linen factories. The Millies transported to 21st century Belfast, working the daily grind of providing care in the home for people who can't even get out of their beds and to the toilet without help.

In Millar's, the only woman character is a Mna Na Heireann figure, a Republican mother and wife, loyal to the cause. She's strong, stoic, able to hold her own as her sons rage around her head. But while it is clearly contemporary and highly topical, rooted in the Republican schism of dissident v political, there is no sense of this woman, and her two sons, being anything more than one-dimensional characters. They shout, but the sense of any coherent argument to extend understanding of why the dissidents are dissenting voices is lost. In fact, the older brother seems to be portrayed as having deep psychological and emotional problems from his time in the cages, with medication and alcohol sedating his days now. What I wanted, and only briefly glimpsed, was the world beyond the anger, the sniping and the bitterness, to a tightly honed debate, an understanding of why, for this one brother and the wider community of people he came from, the war cannot be over.

Sometimes I believe that it is too easy to write about the Troubles, to fall into clichés, ways of thinking and not look at the bigger picture. For the vast majority, the war is over, but if it isn't and theatre is the safe place to discuss it, then give us the argument.

Two new works from here, set here, but one is clearly not giving us the now, but the past. I know the old adage is write about what you know, but if Marie Jones was to write about the Republican split, and Sam Millar wrote about care workers, the shift in both their perspectives might just work.

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