It’s not often a city’s two leading theaters host plays by the same writer at the same time but that happened when I visited Belfast last week and I was curious not only to see the performances but learn more about the playwright.
To my surprise and delight, Pearse Elliott hails from the same part of the city as myself, both of us growing up in rough-and-tumble working class west Belfast.
Like myself, Elliott survived the so-called ‘Troubles’ in Northern Ireland and has since met with immense success in the field of writing – not only plays but also movie, television and radio scripts, and now the world of literature. His first novel, ‘The Executive Game,’ has just been launched.
So far, Elliott has written more than 20 stage plays and has been nominated 15 times at the Irish Film and Television Awards for his work. His credits include the TV series ‘Pulling Moves’ and the films ‘Man About Dog’ and ‘The Mighty Celt.’
The two plays I saw, ‘The Sword & The Sand’ at the Lyric Theatre, now celebrating its 50th anniversary, and ‘Man In The Moon’ at The MAC, one of the newest performance venues in Belfast, granted me glimpses into the writer’s mindset.
Both works are set in Northern Ireland and both deal with the consequences of violence.
For me, ‘The Sword & the Sand’ presented by Rawlife Theatre Company was the better of the two. A tightly written script, with intriguing characters and a strong plot, it was a blend of both laughter and pain. I summed it up in a subsequent Twitter, ‘Brilliant script. Brilliant direction. Brilliant acting. Makes you lean back, lean forward, wince & laugh.’
It’s a West End standard show superbly directed by Martin McSharry, featuring Marty Maguire as Duff, a gang leader; Bernadette Brown, as Lala his girlfriend; Gerard Jordan Quinn, as Cricky, a hitman; Mark Asante as Azir, a hapless emigrant to Ireland; and Paddy Jenkins as Tony Molloy, drug dealer.
Set in post-Troubles Belfast, it deals with a murky organization that profits from targeting and punishing drug pushers. While all the actors shine brightly in their various roles, Maguire is outstanding as a psychotic who suffers from OCD. His character emerges cold, clinical and frightening. While blood nor bodies flow across the stage, Elliot’s style reminds me of the slow rise in tension of the Coen Brothers. The play runs for another week. Go see it. You’ll not be disappointed.
‘Man In The Moon’ which was hosted at The MAC and presented by the Brassneck Theatre Company and The Balloon Factory Productions, is a one man show starring talented Ciaran Nolan who plays Sean Doran, a man trying to make sense of his life. Nolan shows tremendous stamina and fine acting abilities, playing several different characters and zipping around the stage and on top of a park bench – the only stage prop – with the frenetic energy of a teenager on a sugar high.
In many ways, the show is a series of anecdotes, some funny, some solemn, all depicting a man’s rite de passage from youth to adulthood in tough working-class Belfast. While Elliott should be lauded for confronting the taboo subject of suicide in this play, I felt the text could do with some editing, 15-20 minutes lopped off might make the work even better than it is. Fewer people dying might also help. The audience hears about at least three people committing suicide, two from drowning, one from hanging. The result is that shock value is progressively diluted, with audience empathy already wrung out before the last person’s story is told. Perhaps focusing on two in more depth might have worked better.
The first half of the show could almost be described as comedy cabaret, to the point where some audience members laughed at poignant moments (granted, it was a balmy Saturday evening and alcohol was in full flow both inside and outside the theater hall). The second half was much more focused as Doran, sitting on a park bench with a bottle of cider in a plastic bag, the full moon high in the sky (bright on the back curtain) near a popular site known as the Half-Moon Lake, tries to come to terms with his own life and the suicide of his two brothers.
‘Man In The Moon’ has important relevance to Northern Ireland today. A survey by Queen’s University Belfast last year found that survivors of the worst years of the ‘Troubles’ are more prone to suicide and are using antidepressants to cope with living in an era of peace. Suicide rates have nearly doubled for middle-aged men – who lived through the darkest days of the violence – in the decade of peace from the 1998 Good Friday agreement.
Aside from its serious overtones, ‘Man In The Moon’ is also a play full of uplifting comical sketches, a show where larger-than-life characters emerge from Doran’s memories of youth, including Bombscare Bob, Soupy Campbell, Gazelle the running girl and Hatchett.
Growing up in the very same neighborhood and having gone to the Half-Moon Lake many times with friends, some of the vignettes held particular personal significance for me, enticing me to wander down nostalgia lane and relive some of them.
A word about both The MAC and the Lyric. So popular are these two venues, they both hosted several different events last weekend. The spacious lobby of The MAC was chock-a-block with people out for an evening’s entertainment while in addition to ‘The Sword & The Sand,’ the Lyric is also hosting Brian Friel’s ‘Lovers: Winners & Losers’ directed by Emma Jordan, a show worth attending simply to admire its stunning, innovative set design.