Why do so many people still fixate on story of the Titanic?
Irish actor Colin Hamell (who stars in Jimmy Titanic, the award winning one-man show written by playwright Bernard McMullan and directed by Carmel O'Reilly) may offer an answer when it comes to The Irish Rep in Manhattan this month.
Could it be its man versus nature storyline? That it reminds us that the strongest iron rivets are no match for the awesome power of a giant iceberg, allowing mother nature to laugh at our presumption?
Or could it be the sheer scale of the human tragedy that unfolded, with 1,503 men, women and children sinking with the ship on a dreadful night of terror and darkness?
“I wanted to do a one man show about the Titanic back in 2012 when it was the 100 year anniversary,” Hamell tells IrishCentral.
“Bernard McMullan wrote the show for me, then we workshopped it, then it just took off. We didn't want it to be a dull history lesson. It couldn't just be regurgitating all the basic facts of the tale. We wanted to make it entertaining and humorous too, which may sound impossible given the subject matter.”
But humorous Jimmy Titanic, which stars performances at The Irish Rep on January 24, is.
Hamell brings the story of the ill-fated Belfast ship to life with his animated portrayal of an eclectic group of characters, in a flawless delivery of accents, varying from a Belfast dock worker to a couple of Cork men commenting on the mammoth ship as it passes out of sight of Ireland on its maiden and also final voyage.
“We set half the play on the ship and half in heaven,” Hamell explains. “Basically what happens is everyone dies and appears in the afterlife. It's a fun part of the whole journey. It makes the characters real but it also makes it fun for the audience.”
It's an Irish story, the Titanic, it's especially a Belfast story. “We really speak to that. It was an icon in Belfast. People aren't necessarily familiar with that point. The work on that ship meant that the Belfast shipyard was thriving, which meant that the city was too. It provided. The workers families enjoyed great lives out of it. And by holding on to the thriving ship yards they felt they were holding on to their connection with Britain too.”
“I think there's a lot of people who really don't know where it was built. I've met people who thought it was just a James Cameron movie, and didn't know that it was real. I've met people who were fascinated by its dramatic staircase and the life above board for the first class passengers. I've met people who collect memorabilia like menus and cutlery.”
Titanic wasn't the only great ship built at the famous Harland and Wolff dockyard. But it's the one that captured the public imagination like no other. The myth is nearly as strong as the truth now. Like the killing of Lincoln or Kennedy, it's a fixed moment in time that people cannot let go of or get over.
“The thing we want people to know is that Jimmy Titanic is a comedy,” Hamell adds. “They see the subject matter and they assume it's going to be sad. It's a one man show where I play 24 characters. Like a lot of Irish plays we find a way to look at a dark situation with humor. It's informative and comedic.”
The frequent character changes keeps the fast paced play moving, with God portrayed as a hard-nosed Dubliner and the Archangel Gabriel introduced as a fast talking and unapologetically effeminate point man who takes no nonsense from any comers.
Tickets for Jimmy Titanic are now on sale now at The Irish Rep.