The Orange marching season is already under way in Northern Ireland, and likely to reach its grim climax earlier than usual; an application has been made for a march at Drumcree in Portadown on July 2 – by coincidence, the day after the final performance in Belfast of Marching On, the latest work by this year's George Devine Award-winning playwright, Gary Mitchell.
Mitchell's strength is the intelligence, sensitivity and skill he brings to the old saw "write about what you know": in his case, the Loyalist community of north Belfast. Marching On follows one family in the area over the season of a Twelfth of July march: grandfather a respected pillar of the local Orange lodge, teenage grandson a tearaway in a "kick-the-Pope" marching band, a Scottish relative arriving to show Protestant solidarity but also to take grandfather Samuel's side of moderation when the inevitable occurs and the march is banned from its traditional route. While Samuel (Sean Caffrey) alternately engages in negotiations and joins a dignified protest, Ricky (an exuberant performance from young Packy Lee) joins the young Turks on the street rioting and taking matters into their own hands. He is thus engaged against not just the "Fenians" of the Residents' Association, but his own father, a traumatised RUC officer headed for nervous breakdown and dragging the rest of the family with him.
This is more nakedly a play of ideas than usual with Mitchell, as he concentrates on dramatising the differences in Protestant viewpoints; nevertheless, he does so with his customary quiet flair, creating a family drama with more than enough laughs to keep an audience onside throughout the debating. It is, of course, the womenfolk who open the picture up beyond simple dialectic, as Helena Bereen's grandma Shirley keeps the household going on fried breakfasts and tries to keep Samuel's heart from giving out with the seasonal stress, and Ricky's sister Lorraine (Sarah Boyd Wilson) asks the innocent voice-of-reason questions like why not just march along a different road?
The replies to such questions, although voiced by the hotheaded Ricky, give a plausible insight into Loyalist perspectives: genuinely seeing matters of heritage rather than triumphalism, and a situation where concession equals defeat but indulgence is no victory but a mere recognition of right. Mitchell takes no sides himself, but ably articulates the differing views - such, indeed, that for the first time I began to understand this element of what is, after all, my own native culture: the element that had always before seemed to me, as to virtually everyone outside the province, to be simple, bigoted obstinacy. The complications are further dramatised by the disintegration of Ricky's policeman father, who admits that he joined the RUC to defend his own community and now finds it ranged against him as he enforces rulings he deplores. In a beautifully judged final scene, Ricky and his father are left alone after the near-implosion of the entire family, each silently confronting the emptiness at the core of his own position.
Marching On is clearly intended as a contribution to the debate as well as a play in itself, but in Stuart Graham's production it succeeds equally in both respects. Ruth Dudley Edwards' programme notes express the wish that it may soon be seen in Dublin; more to the point, it should be seen and pondered by all parties to this season's marching disputes.
Written for the Financial Times.
Copyright © Ian Shuttleworth; all rights reserved.
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