At first glance, John Hume might seem the last politician you would make a musical about.
With respect to each and all of them, a song and dance show on Ian Paisley could, of course, have a core of gospel, tree-hugging beardie Gerry Adams’ might rock go to a hippie beat and David, Lord Trimble most likely needs an Elvis soundtrack, with a touch of Wagner.
But Hume was not always associated with music – apart of course from The Town I Loved So Well, the Phil Coulter standard, which was his party piece.
It was one of the points I could not resist putting to Damian Gorman, the author of a stage play on Hume ‘Beyond Belief’, which has its’ world premiere in Londonderry later this week.
Q – What were the origins of the HUME project?
Gorman – HUME: Beyond Belief is the second in a projected trilogy of musical dramas with peacebuilding as a core aim. (The first was last year’s piece about Bloody Sunday, The White Handkerchief, written by the late Liam Campbell. The third hasn’t been announced yet.) This body of work is coming from the Playhouse in Derry, former home of the Theatre Peacebuilding Academy. In 2019, and into 2020, I was the final Resident Artist of the Academy. During my time there I worked with director Kieran Griffiths and composer Brian O’Doherty on Anything Can Happen. This was a ‘theatre-of-witness’ production in which six people severely impacted by the Troubles carried their stories to the stage. Working on that was an intensely moving (and very happy) time for me. And I took no time saying Yes when Kieran said he’d like to ‘get the band back together’ (Brian, himself and me) to look at the contributions of John and Pat Hume to life here. Part of the thinking was that, as John had died in the middle of Covid, the people of Derry hadn’t had the chance to properly take their leave of him.
This was one of the things in my mind when writing the book and lyrics for Beyond Belief.
Q – Does it tell us anything about Hume we don’t already know or fully understand?
Well obviously I don’t know what any given person ‘knows or fully understands’ about John Hume, but let me put it this way…
Hume has been described as a ‘titan’, an ‘icon’, even a ‘hero’ of peacemaking. I have no particular argument with any of these descriptions. It’s just that we know what ‘titans’, ‘icons’ and ‘heroes’ do – they do titanic, iconic and heroic things. What interested me more was a human being who achieved great things in community work and peacebuilding: someone who belonged to a family, and a place; someone who felt pressure, and who wasn’t perfect.
I should point out that mine is not a verbatim peace, anchored at all times to John Hume’s own words. I have put words in his mouth, I have conjured up characters and I have made up situations. But always deeply informed by my sense of the man and his times, and what I have learned by listening to others.
A particular interest of mine is his resilience, what he called himself his ‘stickability’ – how he stuck to the task, the task of helping to bring peace to Northern Ireland. Even when that task proved thankless, and seemed hopeless. I have one character saying of Hume that,
‘he seemed to know something that none of the rest of us knew…’
Another focus I had when writing the piece was on the fact, the simple fact, that John Hume’s work was shared fully with, and relied heavily on, his wife Pat. She is almost as big a character in Beyond Belief as he is.
Q – Why the music? Apart from The Town I loved So Well, which was his party piece, he’s not really associated with music.
Gorman – Actually quite a few people who’ve been around Hume do associate him with music and singing, and speak about how he would sing at the drop of a hat (often enough having dropped the hat himself).
Apart from the fact that Beyond Belief was conceived as the middle of a trilogy of musical dramas, there are many reasons for having the language of music so prominent in the telling of this particular story. But let me focus on just one.
Beyond Belief spans the time of Hume’s working life, which encompasses the time of the Troubles. That being the case, it deals with a number of very sad, very traumatic events – things which impacted on the man and on his work. Having said that, the show is not two hours of Purgatory. There is a lot of humour in it, but there is a lot of reality too – the painful realities of the Troubles. It is my belief, and it is my experience, that if you are going to deal with pain on stage – especially for audiences who know all about it – you need to do so with great care, and beautifully well. The work needs to be beautifully thoughtful, beautifully crafted, beautifully delivered.
Music is a great help in this because – maybe uniquely – it can empty people and fill them up at the same time. It can be revelatory, challenging and healing all at once.
Q – Will folk be able to see it beyond the Maiden City?
Gorman – Even by the end of February all tickets for Beyond Belief – at the Guildhall in Derry-Londonderry from March the 31st to April 7th – had sold out. There are waiting lists for each night, and we’re looking at ways to increase the capacity and release more tickets.
I know of no current plans to tour, but the final performance (on April 7th) will be livestreamed across the world. For online tickets for that livestream – or any other ticket enquiries – please go to www.derryplayhouse.co.uk, or ring (028) 7126 8027.