Beneath the Harp and Crown: Philip Orr Speaks ahead of the Premiere of his new play about UDR Veteran

‘Beneath the Harp and Crown,’ a new play by Philip Orr, premieres next week in four venues. The play was developed in collaboration with Decorum NI, a charity based support group for veterans of the security forces and their families who served during The Troubles in Northern Ireland.

The play is billed as addressing the question, ‘Can a UDR veteran come to terms with his painful past?’ It is a one-man show performed by Brian Payne. There will be post-show discussions after each performance facilitated by people who served in the security forces or who have a knowledge of the human impact of military service.

Writing this week in the Belfast Telegraph, Orr said:

More than 62,000 men and women served in the Ulster Defence Regiment or the home battalions of the Royal Irish Regiment during our local conflict. Over 270 of these soldiers were killed, some after they had left the forces. All of them experienced stress and strain and some were left with serious physical disability and/or mental trauma.

While the British squaddie on the customary tour of duty could retire to the relative safety of the barracks and then, when it had ended, head back across the Irish Sea or onwards to a tour of duty in Germany, the UDR or R Irish man remained on full alert – arguably even more vulnerable when out of uniform, whether at home or at work, than when on patrol. The impact of those years spent on a perilous 24-hour front-line is still being felt today.

… It is my belief – and the belief of those who run the Decorum project – that the voices of security force members and their families need to be heard, and that many of those voices deliver narratives that are truly compelling.

Some of Orr’s previous plays have explored the life of Corrymeela founder Ray Davey, the events of 1912, and the memory of the Easter Rising and the Battle of the Somme. Slugger caught up with Orr to ask him about his latest offering.

Questions and Answers on ‘Beneath the Harp and Crown’

Q: As a playwright, why did you think it was important to tell a story from a UDR perspective?

A: I feel that stories from the former security forces during our recent conflict are important to hear. Apart from the obvious point that all voices need heard in an emerging, post-conflict society, there is a vital added factor. Many in this sector of the community do not feel that their motives and feelings, the personal cost – or indeed the intensity of their pain – were or are understood. And they sense that film makers, artists and others who help create popular cultural narratives have often been interested in exploring the characterisation of those who were insurgents- but prone to reduce the security forces to psychologically flat or demeaning stereotypes. However this deficit is being addressed somewhat in work such as Green and Blue – Lawrence McKeown’s play, produced by Kabosh.

Q: Can you describe how you worked with Decorum NI to develop the script?

A: I have worked on and off with Decorum for two years, listening to stories and undertaking creative writing classes. Last year I wrote a play based on the experiences of a former policeman and more especially the impact of his injury on his partner. That was performed by two able actors and performed in a number of community venues. For this drama it has been important to allow the anecdotes I heard from former UDR men to filter into a plot about one fictional character who is still suffering from PTSD as well as grief for the loss of his son.

Q: How do you see the post-show discussions as contributing to conversations about Northern Ireland’s past? Will the venues where the play is staged (primarily in PUL communities) limit the reach of the play’s impact?

A:  The post show discussions are first and foremost about contributions to the security force veterans’ sense of themselves, about building confidence in telling those stories and reflecting keenly upon those stories. That is capacity building work – and any contribution to the discursive capacity of a society’s various members is a contribution to democracy. In that regard, the venues are reasonably ‘comfortable’ ones for discussion of UDR histories. That should not be construed as systemic introversion. The process of development is incremental. In due course this play and its attendant platform for discussion may well make its way to very different and rather more challenging venues- and that would be a healthy development.

Beneath The Harp And Crown, March 20, Royal British Legion, Comber, 7.30-9pm; Wednesday, March 21, Web Theatre, Newtownards, 7.30-9pm; Thursday, March 22, The Space, SERC, Bangor (students), 2-4pm, and public performance, 7.30-9pm, and Saturday, March 24, Village Hall, Ballywalter, 7.30-9pm. All events free. Discussion follows all performances.