Tinderbox Theatre’s True North: Raising Questions that Northern Ireland isn’t Ready to Answer?

image Belfast’s Tinderbox Theatre concluded its series of three ‘Truth North’ productions this weekend. I attended two of the plays, ‘God’s Country’ and ‘Everything Between Us,’ with students on our master’s programme in Conflict Resolution and Reconciliation.

Kathy Clarke’s review of the productions in Irish Theatre Magazine puts it better than I could,

True North, a series of plays from Northern Ireland’s most promising young writers, refreshes an audience bored with shying away from truth in the theatre. John McCann, Colin Bell and David Ireland collaborate with Tinderbox Theatre Company on an innovative new project of artistic vision and financial practicality. A unique ensemble of players performs in repertory dramas that tackle what it means to live in Northern Ireland today.

The plays we attended dovetailed with themes that we tackle on our programme: diversity (including homophobia), and dealing with the past through mechanisms such as truth commissions. I blogged previously about the questions raised about homophobia in God’s Country.

Everything Between Us

Everything Between Us was at times an uncomfortable play to watch, not least because of the deliberately shocking language and lurid stories told by Teeni, a wayward soul who has come back to Belfast to disrupt her sister’s work on a truth and reconciliation commission.

Indeed, the dialogue between Teeni and her sister Sandra was an exhibition of extremism – from Teeni’s stories about her adventures while away to the views she expresses about the Northern Ireland conflict and people of other races.

Even Sandra seems at times an extremist: she has taken the extreme measure of attending Alcoholics Anonymous because she finds comfort in it – even when she is not an alcoholic herself!

There are moments of tenderness and tentative reconciliation between the two sisters, but there is little resolution, no happy ending.

The play ends with Sandra exiting – not through the door on stage and back to her work on the truth and reconciliation commission – but through the front of the stage and out the door of the theatre. She confesses as she walks away that it ‘horrifies me to be a human being’.

Teeni remains slumped on-stage, and proclaims: ‘I remember everything.’

This is what that ending said to me: people in Northern Ireland will indeed remember everything about the troubled past, with or without a truth commission or some other mechanism for dealing with it.

This led me to ask,

  • Is Northern Ireland ready to face up to what’s so horrifying about humanity, and the way that this was manifested on a day-by-day basis throughout the Troubles?
  • Or will each and all be left with their own destructive memories, tearing them apart in so many different ways?

Outreach Workshop on Everything Between Us

As a theatre company, Tinderbox is committed to providing spaces where those sorts of questions can be explored. To that end, Tinderbox’s Outreach Director, Ciaran McQuillan, facilitated a workshop for my students where we could engage with those and other questions.

In the workshop, several students confessed feeling stunned by the intensity of the language and the performance. Some were also uncomfortable with Teeni’s black humour – they found themselves laughing at some of what she said, but felt guilty about laughing about it because it was so offensive.

McQuillan explained that this was a deliberate strategy on the part of the playwright, David Ireland, which culminated in Teeni’s description of an argument she had gotten into with a republican bartender in New York.

Answering Teeni’s retort that ‘oppressed’ Catholics couldn’t be compared both to Jews and to Palestinians, the barman tells her that the Catholics are the Jews during World War II, and the Protestants are the Jews after World War II. Teeni replies that she would rather be the Jews after World War II, because at least by then they had learned to fight back.

McQuillan said that by the time Teeni had reached this point in each of the performances, all laughter from the audience had stopped.

I also was intrigued to learn that in earlier productions of the play, Sandra had exited back through the stage door, seeming to return to her work for truth and reconciliation.

McQuillan said that Sandra’s exit through the front of the stage had been forced upon the crew when performing at a particularly small theatre in the United States. But thereafter they had chosen to keep this as a feature, implying that after everything she had just heard, Sandra couldn’t go back to her work.

McQuillan also helped the group to explore questions such as whether voices like Teeni’s had been marginalised in public debate, and if so, what the consequences of that might be as Northern Ireland attempts to stumble forward.

It may well be the case that these productions have raised some questions that Northern Ireland just isn’t ready to answer.

But putting these questions out for scrutiny in the creative, fictional (and therefore safer?) realm of theatre is a valuable part of a wider public process.

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