An unworldly young man falls for the older wife of a powerful loyalist figure, and wants nothing more than to set up a new life with her by investing some of his daddy’s money in a chip shop that they will run together. Problem is, Julie’s husband gets out of jail next week, and it was fresh-faced Brad’s daddy the detective who put him there. Julie has just asked Big Ernie for a divorce, although her eighteen-year-old son, apple of his father’s eye, still lives with her. And Julie seems not to realize that this could be a problem, perhaps because she’s too busy cooking fine Ulster fries for her young unworldly lover. We are in post-ceasefire Ireland, and, as the detective tells Big Ernie, ‘the world changed while you were inside and you can’t change it back’. Love matters, but it is still in no danger of conquering the world or healing the rifts.
But that isn’t all. This is a new play by Gary Mitchell, well-known for a string of plays, TV and film-work all based in the loyalist north Belfast community of Rathcoole where he lived – until 2005, when he and his family were petrol-bombed out of their home by loyalists angered by his depictions of them. This new play was commissioned by Aisling Ghéar, a vibrant and impressive company who work out of Cultúrlann McAdam Ó Fiaich, in ‘The Gaeltacht Quarter’ on the Falls Road, Belfast, to mark their 15th anniversary year. Oh, and it’s in Irish (with live translation into English facilitated through headphones). Brave man.
If the plot sounds pat or overly schematic, that’s because it is. But that’s also partly the point. Each household mirrors the other, and it is not hard to believe that a Republican household, it, too, might show the same symmetries: toughened mothers, strained marriages and the turn to drink, and the protected young of post-Ceasefire northern Ireland who have no idea how many people are watching their backs for them.
With minimal (though almost ridiculously hard-working) furniture on set, most of the action takes place either on a sofa or at a small table that serves as prison visit-room and bar, which only adds to the production’s slightly soapy feel. All the same, it’s a bold and welcome new direction for Irish-language theatre, ably and engagingly presented by Aisling Ghéar. Few audience members needed to use the headphones for translation when I attended, which helped keep the intrusive crackle to a minimum.
By far the most interesting character is Darren or ‘Dazzer’, the fixer charged with keeping an eye on Ernie’s family while he’s inside, and with being a ‘hard’ father-figure to young Ernie. The part is also well-cast. Diarmaid Murtagh captivates with his restless tics and comically excessive physicality, and it is his character that follows you home and keeps you thinking. ( I would have been fascinated to see the events of the play filtered through his difficult position, for example, rather than through that of the insipid lovers.) If the play itself has some weaknesses – a tendency to spell out some things and ignore other key elements of plot, for example – this production goes some distance towards bringing the parts together into a taut and compelling whole, an important new step in Irish-language theatre.