Turning a long-duration historical event into a successful drama that will resonate with contemporary audiences and deal with the contested understanding of the actions of people fifty years ago has got to be a challenge.
But that didn’t stop Martin Lynch from tackling the 1968 civil rights movement and marches in his new play We’ll Walk Hand in Hand, which was developed after extensive community engagement programme and the involvement of local academics.
Lynch pulls a couple of theatrical rabbits out of his playwright’s hat in order to create space in the play for reflection. In the first half, the audience watch as a mature Lesley Gilmartin (Susie Kelly) and Vincent Maguire (Noel McGee) look back at their actions as QUB students half a century ago, and think about what drew them as a cross-community couple into the civil rights movement.
While young Vincent (John Travers) has opted for the path of non-violent protest, his brother and father are involved in the IRA. Not too far away, Lesley (Emer McDaid) struggles to explain to her Protestant parents living in Woodvale why this is a cause that deserves her attention. (Both sets of parents are played for laughs by Maria Connolly and Conor Grimes.)
After the interval, the perspective successfully swaps around and it’s the young Vincent who has the opportunity to look into the future to see what he and his ex-wife have become in 2018 as they face up to the civil rights issues of today. A grand-daughter (played again by Emer McDaird) and her weedy boyfriend Mike (Warsame Mohamed) updated the notion of a mixed marriage and introduce other ethical dilemmas.
While the structure is complicated, the direction and costuming make it seem quite straightforward (unless you stop to figure out the relationship between Connolly and Grimes’ characters in the first and second halves!) The main cast are joined by a community ensemble who play the more minor characters.
Where the ambitious play succeeds is in dealing with the complexity of the different positions, motivations and suspicions back in 1968. There’s room for older Vincent to look back at his paramilitary Dad and acknowledge that he was at least partially shaped by circumstance. There’s barely a ‘side’ in the civil rights story and popular analysis that isn’t represented on stage or in the script. That’s a major hurdle for a left-leaning playwright to have overcome given how (political) critics will try to tear his work apart.
David Craig’s psychedelically coloured set with numerous steps and platforms (and nod to modern Belfast icons and architecture in the second half) allows the cast of 16 to space themselves out during the musical numbers which lighten the mood and place the action in the late sixties. If only some of the cast had been directed to mime rather than distract some of the choral harmonies with their off-key singing.
Faced with an over-serious (and in his imagination over-sexed) bespectacled student, John Travers could have played a very bland Vincent that was all principle and no play. Instead he injects the character with brio and a cheeky impudence that heighten the impact of his disappointing discoveries when he travels forward in time.
The show is stolen – twice – by Emer McDaid, first as the staid student who comes into the civil rights movement like a mathematical solution worked out from first principles, and then as young sassy Micheala who combines being carefree with carrying all the cares in the world in her twenty-something body. McDaid’s voice and sense of rhythm lift many of the songs and help deliver the necessary feel good moments that balance out the historical narrative.
Having bitten off a difficult task, Lynch is to be applauded that the history isn’t buttered over the script too thickly. It’s in the modern day dialogue that certain lines jar and question how well the community engagement was listened to: I see no real world evidence of family planning clinic escorts hitting pro-life protesters, and I’m not sure a Somalian (grand)mother would swear in the way Mike’s mum does given her character’s backstory.
Overall, We’ll Walk Hand in Hand is a welcome break from some of Lynch’s back catalogue of work that tends to play sectarian divisions and stereotypes for laughs rather than using the rich nuances in society to tell stories of substance that can still incite the audience to laugh at themselves.
We’ll Walk Hand in Hand is a Green Shoot Production and runs in the Lyric Theatre until Saturday 31 March.
Cross-posted from Alan in Belfast blog.