The quiddity of Irish drama?: negotiating Gary Mitchell’s As the Beast Sleeps from a ‘four nations’ perspective
This week, PhD student Alex Coupe (Goldsmiths) examines the portrayal of Ulster loyalism in theatre through a four nations lens.
As Sean Brennan has noted in his article for this blog, Ulster loyalism has come to occupy a problematic place in relation to the nationalisms of the Four Nations.[i] In the South, loyalism has often been regarded as a form of ‘false consciousness’ resistant to civic Irish nationalism; in Britain, it has been an overlooked participant in a ‘foreign’ or ‘Irish’ feud.[ii] Since English and Irish reviewers still largely operate within the hegemonic categories of ‘Irish’ and ‘British’ drama, the notion of a ‘Northern Protestant’ tradition has gleaned little attention outside academia and Northern Ireland’s regional press.[iii]
The success in Dublin, London and Belfast of Gary Mitchell’s plays, set in his native north Belfast estate of Rathcoole, has challenged the national lenses through which the problems of the Northern peace process are popularly understood. Focussing on press reviews of Mitchell’s As the Beast Sleeps we may observe how differences in reception have been conditioned by changing political relations within and between Ireland, England and Northern Ireland, and how the play contested distinctions between ‘Irish’ and ‘British’ theatre.
As the Beast Sleeps, his sixth stage production, was first performed on 10 June 1998 at the Peacock Theatre in Dublin, and was subsequently revived in 2001 in Belfast and London before being adapted into a TV film by the BBC in 2002. Written ‘in an ocean of optimism’ six weeks after the loyalist ceasefire, Mitchell wanted the play to question the notion that ‘there was peace in Northern Ireland’ while representing the peace process from a ‘Protestant perspective’.[iv] The play depicts Kyle and Freddie, two former Ulster Defence Association (UDA) paramilitaries who, finding themselves out of a job after the 1994 loyalist ceasefire, are ordered by their superiors to form a ‘punishment squad’ to maintain the peace within the organisation. Freddie refuses to obey and, after stealing political funds to initiate a war, is tortured on stage by his former comrades.
Reviewers in Dublin struggled to locate Beast within contemporary understandings of Irish theatrical and political aesthetics. Since the Belfast setting of the play was far from the verbose, rural qualities of contemporaneous Irish playwrights such as Martin McDonagh, Brian Friel and Marina Carr, its status as ‘Irish’ was always an uncomfortable one.[v] Nowlan included it in his 1998 roundup of ‘Irish theatre’ but his work, even in reviews of the 2001 revival, was rarely compared to other Irish playwrights.[vi] Debate also centered on the question of how to respond to the challenge that Freddie’s revanchist loyalism posed to what Arnold, writing in the Irish Times, called the ‘horrifyingly simplistic’ assumptions about how Northern Ireland ‘should be saved from itself and brought to see sense.’[vii] In the Sunday Independent, Emer O’Kelly viewed the play as advocating the need for ‘intellectual rationalism’ to counter the mystifying ‘religious tenets’ of both political nationalism and loyalism.[viii] But even as Beast was received firmly within the tradition of revisionism that the Troubles had prompted in the 1970s, there was little engagement with the communal history of loyalism itself.[ix]
Northern Irish reviews of the 1998 production were understandably coloured by the political hue of respective publications and the desire to demonstrate Ulster’s post-conflict ‘normalization’. While the SDLP-inclined Irish News emphasised Mitchell’s critique of political violence – ‘there are no heroes any more’[x] – Ian Hill, writing in the unionist Belfast Newsletter, referred to the ‘explosive’ impact of the play south of the border and its confrontation of the ‘romantic’ republicanism of the ‘Dublin chattering class’.[xi] Although by the 2001 revival of the play in Belfast the domestic audience seemed tired of Mitchell’s pessimism, the success of the play abroad meant that it was still held in high esteem.[xii] Any notion that it might glamorise ‘reservoir Prods’, a view expressed by Barr in Fortnight and by Greer in the Newsletter, was, particularly for Hill, secondary to its cachet amongst English ‘broadsheet heavyweights’.[xiii] Ironically a play that depicted the fracturing of a unified Ulster Protestant voice became, for Hill, a sign of a safe and peaceful ‘explosion’ of Protestant cultural capital, exemplified in Mitchell being designated his ‘own theatrical genre’: the ‘Northern Ireland Protestant Thriller.’[xiv]
Hill’s exuberance was not unfounded. While in 1998 English critics saw Beast through the lens of other Irish plays and in relation to the peace process, the 2001 London production was through an emergent concern for ‘identity crisis’, regionalisation and devolved identities in Britain.[xv] Whereas in 1998 Luke Clancy compared the play to Anto Nolan’s Fully Recovered and Declan Hughes’s Twenty Grand as an example of the violence and ‘sociopathic’ tendencies he saw as the regressive ‘quiddity of Irish drama’, by 2001 it had made its way into Aleks Sierz’s (now-totemic) In-Yer-Face Theatre: British Drama Today alongside the works of Sarah Kane and Martin McDonagh.[xvi] Unlike their Irish counterparts, critics in the English press increasingly saw loyalist alienation as expressing a ‘sense of disenfranchisement’ specific to post-conflict Northern Ireland, and a masculine crisis common to ‘men deprived of their role’ throughout the four nations and beyond.[xvii] Indeed, the 2002 film adaptation, directed by an Englishman, emphasized the economic precariousness of Kyle and Freddie (see fig. 1), and was variously compared to Brassed Off, The Full Monty,[xviii] Reservoir Dogs,[xix] and Mean Streets,[xx] films noted for their depictions of male trouble.[xxi] Clearly, loyalist alienation was no longer seen as a provincial, or Irish issue; rather, it was the regional inflection of an archipelagic crisis of masculinity common to plays produced across the Four Nations.As Susan Bennett has argued, ‘[c]ultural assumptions affect performances, and performances rewrite cultural assumptions.’[xxii] A Four Nations approach to theatre reception allows us to see how Mitchell’s representation of working-class loyalism challenged both the southern nationalist audience and English understandings of what constituted ‘Irish’ and ‘British’ theatre, while confirming a Northern Irish tendency to seek cultural recognition in Dublin and London.[xxiii] This suggests that, even as the representation of loyalism confronts ideas of homogenous theatrical traditions, national cultural centers continue to play an important part in the valorization of Northern Ireland’s post-conflict regional identity, perhaps at the expense of a deeper understanding of loyalist culture and history.[xxiv]Since Northern Ireland lacks a ‘national’ theatre organisation like those founded in Scotland and Wales in the 2000s, many of its playwrights continue to make their careers in London and have their plays premiered outside the North.[xxv] This migration has lead to the inclusion of a ‘Northern Protestant’ voice within an increasingly cosmopolitan, ‘Four Nations’ conception of theatre. Nevertheless it is important for the development of an inclusive regional identity that, in an age of Arts Council cuts, such voices continue to be heard, contested and explored in Northern Ireland itself.
[i] https://fournationshistory.wordpress.com/2016/02/22/radical-loyalism/ [retrieved 31.04.16]
[ii] See Alan F. Parkinson, Ulster Loyalism and the British Media (Dublin, Four Courts Press, 1998) p. 76
[iii] Only recently have theatre critics such as Maguire highlighted the need to attend to the specific context of Northern Ireland within Irish theatre history because ‘Northern Ireland is both Irish and British.’ Maguire, Making Theatre in Northern Ireland Through and Beyond the Troubles (Exeter: Exeter University Press, 2007) p. 8.
[iv] Fiachra Gibbons, ‘Truth and Nail’, The Guardian, 10 Apr. (2000) p. 10; Conall Morrison, director of the 1998 production, also remarked that the play confronted the ‘suspiciously enthusiastic’ tone of the months after the signing of the GFA, and remarked that ‘[t]here was so little debate’. Quoted in Helen Meany, ‘Embracing the Challenge’, Irish Times, 9 Jun (1998) p. 12
[v] In her 1998 review Jocelyn Clarke called it ‘a play which pitches action against words’. Clarke, The Tribune Magazine, 14 June (1998) p. 2
[vi] David Nowlan, ‘Rewind ‘98’, Irish Times, 15 Dec. (1998) p. 14
[vii] Bruce Arnold, Irish Independent, 13 June (1998) p. 12
[viii] Emer O’Kelly, Sunday Independent, 14 June (1998) p. 15
[ix] On revisionism see John Whyte, Interpreting Northern Ireland (Oxford: OUP, 1990) pp. 130-133
[x] Robert McMillen, ‘Taming the Beast at the Lyric’, Irish News, 4 May (2001) p. 15
[xi] Ian Hill, ‘Belfast dramatist takes Dublin by storm’, Belfast Newsletter, 22 June (1998) p. 14
[xii] Robin Greer, ‘Belfast-based play looks dated’, Belfast Newsletter, 14 May (2001) p. 12
[xiii] Greer (2001) p. 12; John Barr, ‘Sleeping with Beasts’, Fortnight, No. 396, June (2001) p. 26; Hill, ‘Mitchell’s beast reawakens Protestant thriller genre’, Belfast Newsletter, 1 Oct. (2001) p. 33
[xiv] Hill (2001) p. 33
[xv] Aleks Sierz, Rewriting the Nation: British Theatre Today (London: Methuen, 2011) p. 225
[xvi] Luke Clancy, ‘Sofa, so insubstantial’, The Times, 6 July (1998) p. 18; Aleks Sierz, In-Yer-Face Theatre: British Drama Today, (London: Faber, 2001) p. 155
[xvii] Mick Heaney, ‘Paying dues to the union’, Sunday Times, 17 Feb. (2002); Robert Hanks, ‘Television Review’, The Independent, 4 Feb. (2002) p. 12; See, ‘War is over – if you want it’, The Guardian, 4 Feb (2002) p. 2.18 and Rachel Halliburton, ‘The pain of chasing peace’, Evening Standard, 20 Sept. (2001) p. 52 for references to unemployment and job insecurity.
[xviii] Hanks, ‘Television Review’, p. 12
[xix] Liam Fay, ‘Perfectly Beastly’, The Times, 10 Feb. (2002) p. 26
[xx] John Dugdale, ‘As The Beast Sleeps’, Sunday Times, 3 Feb. (2002) p. 59
[xxi] See Erin M. Reser, ‘Strategies of Negotiation in Mainstream Media: Vernacular Discourse and Masculinity in The Full Monty’, Popular Communication, 3.4 (2005) pp. 217-237 and Brenton J. Malin, American Masculinity Under Clinton (Oxford: Peter Lang, 2005)
[xxii] Susan Bennett, Theatre Audiences: A Theory of Production and Reception (London: Routledge, 1997) p. 2
[xxiii] Roy Connolly has suggested that ‘measuring local cultural activity against external standards, has been at the root of the lack of critical regard for the Northern Irish theatre tradition.’ See Connolly, ‘Knowing Their Place: The Ulster Lyric Theatre, The Lyric Theatre and the Northern Irish Theatre Scene’, Theatre History Studies, vol. 30 (2010) pp. 202-219 (203)
[xxiv] Jennifer Cornell worried that ‘audiences both within and outside Northern Ireland may come to accept [Mitchell’s] vision as the only one needed to understand a community which is, in fact, more diverse than Mitchell’s body of work so far would suggest.’ Cornell, ‘Walking With Beasts: Gary Mitchell and the Representation of Ulster Loyalism’, Canadian Journal of Irish Studies, 29.2 (2003) pp. 27-34 (31)
[xxv] The two most prominent Northern playwrights of the 2000s, Gary Mitchell and Owen McCafferty, had the majority of their work produced outside Northern Ireland. For Scottish and Welsh ‘national theatres’, see https://www.nationaltheatrescotland.com/content/default.asp?page=s7 and https://www.nationaltheatrewales.org/about [retrieved 1.05.16].
Alex Coupe is in his first year as an AHRC-funded PhD student at Goldsmiths, University of London. His project, provisionally entitled ‘Politics as Performance in Northern Ireland: embodying ideas of community after the Good Friday Agreement’, explores the way the body is used to represent and enact ideas of community and conflict transformation, both on and off the stage.