Unpopular opinion time. I think I might like Stewart Parker’s work more than that of Brian Friel. I know. It’s basically heresy to say that. Here in Belfast where the local theatre-going populace breaks out in a cold sweat if one of the local theatres doesn’t stage Philadelphia, Here I Come!, Dancing at Lughnasa or Translations on an annual basis. Where 1 in 5 adults, having had to study Philadelphia at GCSE some years ago, can still tell you to whom the name ‘Aul Screwballs’ refers. Nonetheless. I am not saying Friel is no good, I’m just saying that I might, just possibly prefer Stewart Parker.
James Stewart Parker (1941 – 1988) was a Belfast poet and playwright, hailing from Sydenham. He wrote columns on pop music in the Irish Times, some truly strange experimental prose, a few great radio plays and a number of plays which rarely receive the attention they are due in the Irish canon of dramatists. Parker lost his leg to bone cancer when he was only 20. His work has that kind of stubborn, gritty determination this city breeds into its artists yet although most of Parker’s stage plays were about Northern Ireland, it was not until the mid-1980s that his work started to be produced here. Until I went to see Pentecost last night, I had only seen one other Parker play performed – Spokesong at Bank Buildings in 2008, a production that was directed by the playwright’s niece, Lynne Parker. Spokesong was an unexpected hit when it first opened at the Dublin Theatre Festival in 1975 and certainly a play about a bike salesman in a part of Belfast which is being disrupted and rearranged post-Blitz in order to accommodate a new motorway is both a quirky and poignant look at a city balanced on the brink of disaster.
Pentecost, however, was Parker’s last play, first staged by Field Day Theatre Company in 1987, the year before Parker’s untimely death from cancer. The quirky poignancy of Spokesong is gone. This is a more mature, considered work. There is still a search to find the light, to seek out hope, to find consolation in human kindness, compassion and solidarity. Yet this is a play that takes place in the depths of despair and, at times, darkness. It is infused with worry and anxiety, against a backdrop of debt, homelessness and dispossession. There is no fresh start, no place of sanctuary in a city riven with the tension created by the Ulster Worker’s Strike. Characters flee insolvency and domestic abuse, only to find themselves bunkered down in a claustrophobic Belfast parlour house that is literally haunted by its previous occupant. The play is nonetheless darkly humorous and frank in its vision. It is not, however – no matter how close we are getting to Halloween and how the Lyric are trying to push this – not a “ghost play”.
Perhaps, more so than in Spokesong, the characters in Pentecost have dated somewhat, the trombone-playing, bearded socialist Lenny being a prime example of a 1970s throwback. The Lyric actually ran a Twitter competition last week for #ThrowbackThursday inviting followers to tweet them with pics of themselves dressed in 70s clothes to win tickets for the play. This might be a little off-putting for some. With Friel’s Ballybeg work we get a sense that he is encapsulating an Ireland which was on the verge of disappearing at the time and is now, for most purposes, gone. It is quaint, sometimes, perhaps, annoyingly so. But it doesn’t particularly intrude on our experience of the play as it largely feels to modern audiences like a history play / period piece. Spokesong is just a little too recent to comfortably fit into that category, yet dated enough to not quite feel modern and fresh. Certainly that was my impression of this production at the Lyric, directed by Jimmy Fay.
Fay is the Lyric’s first Executive Producer, appointed this year to a newly created role following what theatre management described as “an extensive review of operations” and saw Fay replacing the departing artistic director Richard Croxford. The move was not popular in every quarter, with Equity president Malcolm Sinclair speaking out against the Lyric Theatre’s decision to replace the post of artistic director with an executive producer, labelling the move as “idiocy”.
As to the production, there are undoubtedly strengths, of which Alyson Cummin’s muted set design, with its Tennessee Williams-esque ‘plastic theatre’ walls, was undeniably one. The portrayals of Marian (Judith Roddy) and Ruth (Roisin Gallagher) were also particularly strong – Marian is a complex role in the play, with wordy, didactic tracts of speech and it would take a great emotional range to bring the character to life in a way that does not descend into utter melodrama. Roddy is at times fathomless and inscrutable, at others utterly bereft, heartbroken and heartbreaking. Will Irvine’s Peter struck just the right note of condescension – everyone has a mate in England who spends a lot of time coming ‘home’ for Christmas and proceeding to tell everyone why life in the epicentres of London / Manchester / Birmingham is so much better than life in planet Belfast. My only issue with Peter is we never really understand why he is holed up in the house with the rest of them. It is apparent that life in Birmingham in the flat over the health food shop can’t be as amazing as he implies, or why would he choose sleeping in a damp box room in 1974 Belfast, but the emotional register of Irvine’s portrayal ranges between scorn, anger and a degree of sympathy, without creating much empathy for the audience.
Overall, this production, like the set design, largely takes a somewhat muted approach, which, whether it stems from Fay as director or from the cast themselves, works to aplomb in the play’s dramatic finale which skates a thin line towards melodrama of the highest order. The sense of restraint that perhaps flattens other aspects of the play works well here and creates a strong level of emotional credibility.
The play closes on Pentecost Sunday – a symbol of rebirth, a new start. This house in Belfast the characters have made a kind of makeshift home in is described as barren, and certainly it is childless, underlining the notion that there is no hope, no future in this city. The tongues of fire in the biblical Pentecost Sunday are not much in evidence – the only fire in the air are the bombs falling in the Belfast blitz in Lily’s diary, the falling blows on Ruth’s head that make her see a blinding light, the beams of the British army helicopter that moves in towards the end of the play as Peter flees from a mob outside. Yet there is hope, symbolised by Ruth’s opening of the window at the end of the play, to let light and life in to the house and in to the characters’ lives.
Having just seen and reviewed ’71, it is interesting to go and see another Belfast drama also set in the 70s less than a week later. There is a certain zeitgeist at the moment, perhaps, where the inability to make political progress on the cuts and welfare reform leaves our at best tenuous state teetering towards…something. Perhaps not the bloody carnage of ’71, perhaps not the widespread anarchy of the UWC strikes in Pentecost. But something is surely coming and the lack of certainty as to what that something might be seems to be creating a cultural anxiety that audiences have an appetite for.