Dan Gordon’s Belfast shipyard’s play “The Boat Factory” hits New York
Northern Irish playwright aims to open up the Belfast story to the world
“Nationalists have a tradition of performance and celebrating and partying, but we have a tradition of bolting the front door and saying if anyone comes near us we’ll shoot them.”
So in one sense 'The Boat Factory' is part of a larger project to open the Northern Irish Protestant experience up to the world in a new way.
“I want to do it with humor too, to diffuse the tension,” Gordon says.
For a century, to grow up in Belfast has meant growing up in the shadow of the giant yellow Harland & Wolff’s cranes in the city’s shipyard. And despite what some might have you believe, the Titanic was not the only ship ever built there.
In fact over 1,700 ships were built and 35,000 men were employed at its height, making it the biggest and best shipyard in the world in its heyday, which is now long passed.
But it’s a past worth remembering Gordon believes, because for more than a century it dominated the North’s economy. In this centenary year of the Titanic’s sinking that’s a legacy still to be grappled with.
Performing alongside fellow actor Michael Condron, Gordon conjures up a host of colorful characters from the glory days in a play that’s poignant, funny and moving.
“I’ve lived in the shadow of those big yellow cranes all my life, and I wanted to tell their story because they are so much a part of me. My father and my grandfather worked there and I never really got to talk to them about the experience. So I wrote the play,” Gordon says.
One of the evocative places the play has been staged in is at the multimillion-pound new Titanic Museum in Belfast.
“The play isn’t about the Titanic, although it’s referenced in it,” Gordon explains. “It’s really about the 1,700 other ships that were built there.
“When I was growing up nobody ever mentioned the Titanic. It was only in 1997 when director James Cameron made the movie that it finally became acceptable to talk about it at last. My father never talked about it. My grandfather never talked about it. It was a taboo subject because it sank. They were embarrassed about it. It was James Cameron that gave Belfast the permission to talk about it again by making a very famous film.”
But everyone knows Titanic now.
“Now we’re proud of it. There was a line my father often said that I put in the play: ‘She was all right when she left us.’ That was his view,” Gordon says.
“Legends have grown up about the bad rivets and the bad steel. Bollocks. It was driven at 21 knots into an ice field at night. That’s what happened. They’re very proud of it now. But then? They hung their heads.”
As 'The Boat Factory' makes clear, the process and craftsmanship of Belfast shipbuilding was astounding.
“They started with a sheet of steel laid flat on keel blocks in a dry dock. Then they attached more sheets of steel to it through drilled holes with rivets,” Gordon says.
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