"Ulster at Play," a dramatic presentation charting the rich and often turbulent history of theatre in Northern Ireland, was presented this past weekend at the American Irish Historical Society. Written by playwright/producer Turlough McConnell, "Ulster at Play" was part of the Transformation Through Creativity symposium organized by the Origin 1st Irish theatre festival.
Beginning with an excerpt from the historic satire "Thompson in Tir-na-n-Og," actor Ciaran Byrne convincingly played an Orangeman who is utterly startled to find himself transported to the mythical Irish land of the young after his gun explodes at the sham battle of Scarva.
Even more surprised to encounter him are the legendary Irish-speaking heroes themselves, who interrogate this strange new interloper after his unexpected appearance. Actor Colin Ryan played the mystified cross-examiner who puts this angry blow-in on trial only to discover that he supports an English (technically Dutch) king over the rule of any Irishman.
Gerald McNamara's genuinely funny play lampoons northern identity whilst giving it a sympathetic hearing, meaning that this play did something almost unheard of in Ulster when it was first produced in 1912, it delighted both Planter and Gael.
McConnell followed this luminous excerpt with his evocatively written introduction to playwright Harold Pinter's brief memoir of working in Ireland for two years in the early 1950s with actor-manager Anew McMaster's classical touring company.
Pinter's recollections are a love letter to Ireland, to the theatre, and in particular to the life-transforming friend and mentor that he had the good fortune to find at a key moment in his own artistic development. Actor Colin Ryan gave a hearty and heartfelt invocation of Pinter's fond memories.
Mac, as those lucky enough to work with him called him, was beloved by all who knew him. “In March 1951 Limerick's cinemas all went on strike,” Ryan informs us. When word reached McMaster about the cinema strike he knew what his theatre company had to do. “Book Limerick!” he said. “At once!”
Touring Ireland with the revolutionary McMaster repertory company in the early fifties, Pinter played over a dozen roles in a formative experience he would never forget. McMaster led a freewheeling, anarchic company, exactly the kind of free-thinking bunch calculated to scandalize conservative Irish communities with their loose morals and even looser garments.
“I toured Ireland with Mac for about two years in the early fifties,” Pinter recalls in the piece. “He offered me six pounds a week, said I could get digs for 25 shillings at the most, told me how cheap cigarettes were and that I could play Horatio, Bassanio and Cassio. It was my first proper job on the stage.”
The warmth of the Nobel Prize winner's recollections sets the tone for all that follows in "Ulster At Play." In the awkward, sometimes halting dance between Ireland and Britain, it can happen. McConnell reminds us that deep a affection can take the place of conflict too. It's a timely reminder in this age of ultimatums and border walls.
As the presentation progressed McConnell's judiciously selected excerpts and commentaries from the northern playwriting canon built a picture of the key Irish plays and playwrights through the last century, with particular emphasis on the contributions of the master playwright Brian Friel.
As Yolland, a British soldier, and Owen, a local guide and native language speaker, Ryan and Byrne again shone in an excerpt from Freil's "Translations," as they rehearsed the insoluble dilemma of unasked for English involvement in our internal Irish affairs.
By focusing on the re-naming of Irish town-lands and the political consequences that arise from the effort, McConnell's excerpt reminds us that the north is still a contested space and that language itself is one of the key arenas of the dispute.
Later McConnell contemplates the achievement of Donegal playwright Frank McGuinness, reflecting on what is arguably his most celebrated play, "Observe The Sons Of Ulster, Marching Toward The Somme."
Miraculously inhabiting the private thoughts and dreams of a community that is historically at loggerheads with his own Irish Catholic background, McGuinness reminds us that we must make room for the two traditions in the north. We can do no other.
By focusing on the unique contributions of key northern dramatists, McConnell makes the case for their enduring achievements and he reminds us how much we owe our now more expansive sense of Irishness to them. "Ulster At Play" may have had a breezy title, but it's message was carved in the rock of experience.