'Wrong Man' indicates a maturing festival

It looks like I’m going to miss the end of the Belfast run of Danny Morrison’s play The Wrong Man, which is currently playing in the Conway Mill as part of the Féile an Phobail until this weekend, when it transfers to Edinburgh. Writing in the Irish Times, John O’Farrell reckons the play’s relatively unpartisan portrayal of the IRA (subs needed) is an indication of how the Festival itself is slowly loosening itself from the politics of its foundation in 1988.

Morrison said that he “did not want to write an apologia for the IRA” or to “mythologise” them. He wanted to show the “humanity” of people who were “flawed, weak individuals”. His Provos are cocky, committed, ruthless torturers and murderers. His British squaddies are bored, cheerful, arrogant and efficient. His RUC Special Branch officers are witty, sarcastic, forensic manipulators of time, facts and people. His women characters are frustrated and impoverished widows-in-waiting. If the audience were expecting the theatrical equivalent of a “show of strength”, they were disappointed.

  • Aaron

    Is this the same festival that holds the “Bobby Sands Memorial” football tournament? It must be a very slow ‘loosening’..

  • CyberScribe

    It’d be interesting to read online what John O’Farrell wrote in the Irish TimesOnline but I’m not subscribing to it so I’ll never know.:-(

  • Jacko

    It is a very well written review by John. Also, it sounds like a very good play and that, in the context of who he is and all the rest of it, Morrison doesn’t duck the issues or realities.
    After reading John’s review, I wouldn’t mind going to see it sometime.

  • Gum

    Féile an Phobail is a wonderful achievement Aaron. Its creation filled a void that was always filled by serious rioting to somehow ‘commemorate’ the hunger strikes. Not only does it give kids something worthwhile to do (as opposed to stoning the police) but it gives the community in West Belfast something to be proud of.

  • Fanny

    Anything that keeps Frances Black off the streets for a week gets my vote.

  • Jacko

    CyberScribe

    Have this one on me.

    A raw display of Provo life

    Former IRA-man Danny Morrison’s play, ‘based on personal experience’, drew audible winces from its audience of powerful republicans, writes John O’Farrell

    On the day after last week’s IRA’s statement, some of the most influential and powerful Irish republicans of the past three decades gathered in Conway Mill, just off the Falls Road. Inside were men such as Jim Gibney, Tom Hartley, Bobby Storey and Seanna Walsh, who became, last Thursday, the face of P O’Neill, as he read out on video the IRA’s “final communiqué”.

    The reason for last Friday’s gathering was neither a plot nor a wake, but the Irish premiere of a debut play, The Wrong Man by Danny Morrison. From the late 1970s until the late 1980s, Danny Morrison was, like Seanna Walsh on Thursday, the public face of the IRA. As Sinn Féin director of publicity and a high-profile election candidate, Morrison was a hate figure for British tabloids and Ulster’s unionists alike. In 1989, he was imprisoned for kidnapping an alleged informer. It was in the Maze prison that he started writing the novel of The Wrong Man, first published in 1997.

    The play is noteworthy for two reasons. Firstly, its world premiere was in the Pleasance Theatre in London last March. From the mid 1970s until the mid 1990s, Morrison was “excluded”, subject to immediate arrest if he stepped foot on the “mainland”. Secondly, the subject matter, mood and tone of the play. It drew audible winces from an audience knowledgeable about the facts of Provo life on raw display. The opening scene is a brutal IRA interrogation of a suspected informer. The final scene is a sharply cunning good-cop-bad-cop interrogation that turns on finding the moment when an IRA volunteer cracks and (maybe, maybe not) switches sides. The same two actors play the roles of IRA “nutting squad” and RUC “heavy gang” interrogators. In between are scenes of personal interrogation, as the domestic lives of IRA members are scrutinised by their loved ones. There is infidelity, disloyalty, conspiracy and collusion, punished by shame, exclusion, terror and death.

    Morrison said that he “did not want to write an apologia for the IRA” or to “mythologise” them. He wanted to show the “humanity” of people who were “flawed, weak individuals”. His Provos are cocky, committed, ruthless torturers and murderers. His British squaddies are bored, cheerful, arrogant and efficient. His RUC Special Branch officers are witty, sarcastic, forensic manipulators of time, facts and people. His women characters are frustrated and impoverished widows-in-waiting. If the audience were expecting the theatrical equivalent of a “show of strength”, they were disappointed.

    It is, of course, a coincidence that The Wrong Man opened on the day after the IRA statement. And yet, looking at some of the other events making up Féile an Phobail, one gets the feeling that something is happening. The annual west Belfast festival was dreamed up in 1988 by Gerry Adams, in the wake of an April week that seemed to mark the nadir of what one Conservative minister called “the terrorist community”. The public lynching of two terrified British Army corporals seemed to show that the thousands of people who live in west Belfast were capable of any brutality.

    Adams reached for his culture. He decided that an arts festival would better mark the anniversary of internment than the annual hail of “old-time thrupenny bits and stones/screws, bolts, nuts (Belfast confetti)”, in the words of the Belfast poet Padraic Fiacc. Originally tiny in scope and budget, Féile an Phobail has become one of the largest festivals in a city which has as a cornerstone of official arts and tourism policy, the re-imaging of Belfast as a city of festivals. Due to its summer scheduling and as its joint-chair Danny Morrison admits, the “whiff of cordite”, Féile probably attracts more tourists to Belfast than the “Big Daddy”, the November festival at Queen’s.

    But there was always more to the Féile than getting some French and Spanish backpackers up the Falls Road and into the Felons Club. It sent a consistent message to the world outside, but also, according to local critics, to “the westies” themselves. Féile has always been a “political” festival, priding itself on attracting international artists and activists, but there were boundaries. Leila Khaled, who became a Palestinian icon after two hijackings in 1969 and 1970 is the star “political” speaker this year. Previous programmes have included Michael Moore, Robert Fisk, and George Galloway.

    Also, the variations within northern nationalism were not equally represented. The IRSP, RSF, 32-County Sovereignty Movement, Workers’ Party, let alone the SDLP, have barely featured. A few years ago, a concert by Sinead O’Connor was cancelled after a disagreement with the organisers over the wisdom of her plan to speak out against “punishment” beatings. Internal critics of republicanism, such as ex-IRA prisoners Anthony McIntyre and Tommy Gorman, have complained about a “Stalinist culture” afflicting republican areas in general, with the local press, community spokespeople and cultural industries singing from the same hymnsheet, perfectly in tune with the local MP, Gerry Adams.

    This year, things are less rigid. The emphasis is more on providing fun for west Belfast families and visitors than expressing a centralised communal geist. There is an ease to this year’s programme, perhaps a reflection of the confidence of people who feel less isolated from the mainstream of northern society.

    The reasons for this subtle shift in the seeming self-confidence of ordinary Belfast Catholics are complex, but compelling. Economically, northern Catholics have never had it so good. Equality legislation and EU funding of the local social and physical infrastructure are paying dividends. Unemployment is historically low, and many young Catholic professionals are opting to stay in west Belfast, rather than moving out.

    Politically, voting SF is not seen as an act of rebellion in the North, but an endorsement of mainstream Northern nationalism. And the McCartney sisters have shown that it is possible to stand up to abuses of power by republicans. A play like The Wrong Man, consciously or not, is part of this change. The big play at Féile in 2001 was Dubblejoint’s Forced Upon Us, an anti-RUC diatribe that was so blatantly polemical and part of SF’s “Disband the RUC” campaign (and dreadfully written), that the Arts Council NI pulled the funding, unleashing a squall of bleats about censorship.

    Morrison is genuinely nervous about the reception the play will get from his peers. And it is not difficult to see why. He creates a “sympathetic portrayal of an informer”, like the man whose evidence sent him to prison. He says the play shows that the interrogation methods of loyalists, the IRA and RUC “have some similarities involved”. The play “could be about any conflict situation, anywhere”, but that it “provides a unique insight into the IRA”. He is less reticent than hitherto about his past – the programme’s biography of Morrison opens: “a former member of the IRA”. The final scene is “based on my personal experience of being interrogated by the RUC”, he says, and that it is the best-written part of the play is itself revelatory. Morrison had to get himself into the heads of characters based on people who were trying to lock him up, and succeeds brilliantly. So brilliantly, in fact, that the RUC men come across as having more humanity than the Provo interrogators in the terrifying opening scene.

    Tod Malone, the “informer” (is he/isn’t he?), played by Chris Patrick-Simpson, is the subject of both ordeals, helplessly pleading for his life in the face of brutality from his IRA comrades-turned-torturers, while silently cracking in the face of a verbal assault from Special Branch.

    What made the audience wince was more than the deja-vu some undoubtedly felt, but the characterisation of Provos being cruel to their wives, heartl
    ess to their victims, mindless of “collateral damage” and so totally fixated on the “struggle” that their humanity has been warped. “It is a story about people caught up in circumstances not of their own making,” says Morrison.

    The IRA commander, Raymond Massey, is compellingly played by Chris Corrigan whose eyes never widen, or blink, or care. Tony Devlin and Liam McMahon provide the gallows humour and hard questions as Provos, British squaddies and RUC interrogators. Devlin’s performance steals the final scene, as he re-enacts a cheap and cheerless killing, rightly sensing that Tod is repulsed by Massey’s murder and hateful of what he has become. Devlin and McMahon take Morrison’s script and invest the right amount of dignity into their characters. They are right to do what they do because their humanity is repelled by the brutal facts of a murder, and as a result, they can only reach out to Tod by appealing to his humanity, previously subsumed by the will of Massey.

    After the play, few audience members would go on the record. Bobby Storey gave a firm but polite “no comment”, and Seanna Walsh didn’t “want to say anything”, apart from “the play was very good”. Jim Gibney, a close friend of Morrison as well as being perhaps the most important republican strategist of his generation, was more forthcoming: “People in this community need to be challenged.” And it may take someone of Morrison’s stature within that community to do just that.

    Morrison was unsure. “I really don’t know how it went down.” I tried to cheer him up by quoting (who else?) Conor Cruise O’Brien, who wrote about George Orwell in 1961 that “you knew that certain things he said were true, because you winced when you heard them.” He got the reference, and the context, and the joke, and laughed.

    At Conway Mill, Belfast, until Friday, and Pleasance Dome, Edinburgh, Aug 7-29

  • CyberScribe

    Thanks Jacko! 🙂

  • BogExile

    Jacko – a very balanced and intelligently written review. I’d like to see the play.

    I once had a strange e-mail exchange with Danny morrison, following a Guardian article when he left his address.

    We are on totally opposite sides of the equasion but it is always worth listening to a mature and eloquent atriculation of Republicanism. I think that his treatment of the RUC/Army in your review shows something optimistic – that some key Republicans are capable of getting into the heads of the old enemy and acknowledging their individual humanity rather than the usual caricature.It seems dto me from our brief e-dalliance that here was someone who has implacable views but was capable of genuinely realising that unionism is a legitimate ideology and not a kind of mental aberration.

  • Jacko

    BogExile
    Yes, I must admit that I was pleased but not terribly surprised to read that Morrison has refused to paint in monochrome the chatacters in his play.
    Some of his comments indicate that he is far from being a mere parrot.

  • Belfast Dissenter

    Here’s a perspective from a Shankill Road resident Me) who saw the play at the Edinburgh Fringe festival last Monday.

    Conway Mill’s not too far from me, (on the other side of that big wall) but I still feel more comfortable seeing this in Edinburgh than there.
    Here

  • Belfast Dissenter

    Sorry, but that hyperlink didn’t seem to show up in my posting above.

    Trying again. If it doesn’t work, just copy and paste the URL below into your browser.

    link

    http://www.altculture.org/ccult/ccult603.html

  • S.O.S.

    Jacko, thank you so much for sharing O’Halloran’s entire piece. Belfast Dissenter, thank you for sharing your perspective as a working class Shankill Road Protestant. It’s encouraging that many of your reactions to Morrison’s play echo the reactions of a female republican friend of mine who saw the play in London.

    Like you, my friend — who incidentally has thrown herself for years now into improving cross community relations — singled out the portrayals of the two put-upon female characters. (Her exact words were that she found herself “nodding furiously” while they were on stage.)

  • arthur o’neill

    Saw the play yesterday in Edinburgh.I’m sorry but politics aside it was not good.
    As someone who is interested in irish affairs i went hoping to learn something.It was little more than a bad episode of the bill as it turns out.
    Morrisson has no sense of theatre, the scenes are badly written and over long,and he can’t write for women.
    The only point in writing a play political or otherwise is to educate,push the boundaries,cajole,entertain and make some sort of statement.
    This play did none of these things.To be honest at times it was embarrasing.very dissapointed as i was really looking foreward to it.