Michelle & Arlene – a fine foemance on a satirical trip away (24-26 August)

Comedians continuously tweak their routines and work topical references into their material. Radio 4’s The Now Show is pretty up to the minute with its lampooning of affairs at Westminster. And The Folks on the Hill series used to have its finger on the pulse of Stormont. When events fit into the weekly schedule of writing, some newspaper columnists cash in on a crisis and make incisive comments while the news cycle unfolds.

But what about the stage? Could the theatre dissect the relationship between the DUP and Sinn Féin, between its (northern) leaders Arlene Foster and Michelle O’Neill? Could a playwright get past the oft-repeated mantras that justify social conservatism and language act red lines and expose the heart of the political matter?

Rosemary Jenkinson mentioned the idea of a theatrical “rapid reaction unit” in an interview with the Belfast Telegraph’s Lee Henry when she took up her position as the new writer-in-residence at the Lyric Theatre in January.

“I’d love to write plays about Trump and Brexit but often the problem with writing about politics is that the situation changes and it becomes yesterday’s news very quickly. If we had more money in arts, we could have some sort of artistic equivalent of a rapid reaction unit and we could really spearhead social protest.”

It’s certain that no more money has been invested in the arts since that interview, but a conversation between Jenkinson and Richard Lavery at Accidental Theatre at the beginning of July has created the opportunity for a new piece of work reflecting on the volatile state of contemporary Northern Ireland politics to be written and produced before the end of this summer.

“There’s so much going on in politics in the world and here, right now. And nobody’s writing about it in theatre.”

The normal gestation period of a modern play could never be described as ‘rapid’. ‘Elephantine’ would be a better description of the long drawn-out process of pitching, commissioning, writing, drafting, revising, scheduling, casting, rehearsing, and finally performing … the period from idea to stage can often be measured in years.

But it wasn’t always that way. When I interviewed her this week, Rosemary Jenkinson recalled that Bertolt Brecht had his own theatre and could thus respond straight away to situations. Dario Fo lampooned Silvio Berlusconi throughout the 1990s and early 2000s (and was awarded the Nobel Prize for Literature). “They had the power to do that” she says. “But most modern playwrights don’t have that power.”

The marketing image for Michelle & Arlene evokes memories of Thelma & Louise, two women who embark on a road trip with disastrous consequences. Jenkinson explains:

“It’s a buddy movie of two opposites, two people who got thrown together by chance. It’ll appeal to the political savvy because the references will chime a chord with them. But even if you don’t know the politics you’ll get something from it in terms of a female road movie.”

Jenkinson wonders about political leaders who have responsible role and “always keep their mask up”.

“People who keep the mask up most need an outlet to have a break and go wild. And that’s what I was thinking with these two heading off without their respective husbands or family, and seeing how would they behave if they had a few days away totally from that stressful reality that they live in.”

Satire tends to exaggerate in order to make its point and maximize impact. “I’m pushing their behaviours to an extreme” says Jenkinson who begins this play with a vaping, drinking Arlene Foster. ‘These are extreme characters … they have quite extreme politics so who knows how extreme they are in their personal lives.”

“The premise is that Michelle and Arlene separately go on holiday to Ibiza but keep bumping into each other. In spite of their initial hostility, it’s almost as if they are fated to be closer than they ever thought possible!”

While this fine ‘foemance’ between the Executive Office text buddies may be fictional, it has its roots in reality, including Arlene Foster’s interview in which she described Michelle O’Neill as “blonde” and “attractive”.

“I think there’s some chemistry there! Everything’s based on reality but just pushed.”

It’s not all pantomime and pantyhose. Expect plenty of talk about boilers, languages and equal marriage.

“They do debate politics in this play … which is quite realistic as they’re in negotiations about these issue so they must have those times when they discuss them [face to face]” says Jenkinson, adding “I’m looking at the ludicrousness of their intransigence”.

Accidental Theatre hope that Michelle & Arlene is the first of many Rapid Response plays that Jenkinson and other playwrights will pen and produce. There’s certainly a vacuum of this kind of political satire in theatre.

Michelle & Arlene runs from Thursday 24 – Saturday 26 August in Accidental Theatre’s new space at 12-13 Shaftesbury Square, behind the Fonacab advertising and under the big screen. Tickets are now on sale.

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