By David Hennessy
“It’s kind of part of my master plan of spreading my word of the Belfast shipyard and there was more to us than just the titanic,” is how Dan Gordon describes bringing his play The Boat Factory to London for the first time. Not only is he the star of the play, Dan is also the playwright and was moved to capture the essence of Belfast’s Harland & Wolff Titanic shipyard and the 35,000 men who were employed there at its height. Having already toured Ireland and internationally, the play was been a resounding success with critics united in praise.
“The Titanic is a great brand and it’s a great way in and we talk about it in the play, but we also talk about the fact that there was 1,700 other ships as well. When they did that Titanic film in 1997, that gave us permission to talk about the Titanic again. Because we were all afraid of the fact that we had mucked it up. They were afraid that they had built a ship that sank. My grandfather wouldn’t talk about it. My father wouldn’t talk about Titanic. They were ashamed. Now they’ve worked through that and they used the phrase: ‘She was alright when she left us’. That Titanic film, we owe a lot to it because it kind of regenerated the interest in Belfast.”
The shipyard is an important part of Belfast’s heritage and also Dan’s own family heritage with his own grandfather, father and many of his uncles working there for various lengths of time: “The play is, like most good plays hopefully, about people: Guys working together in an industrial situation at a period of time when they saw each other more than they saw their families and the relationships that built up between these guys. How they got on and how they didn’t get on, the dangers they got into and the laughs they had, the mad things they did. It’s about these guys and the love they had for each other in a manly way. There were guys my father told me about that were killed trying to save their friends when major accidents happened. These guys worked together, now it’s gone and we need to remember it.
“I interviewed a lot of old guys who had been in the shipyard and then they came to see the show and they offered suggestions: ‘That wouldn’t have been like that’, ‘We wouldn’t have said that’, ‘He would have said this’. So that got integrated into the piece which was a lovely thing to do.”
There are only two actors involved in The Boat Factory with Dan Gordon and Michael Condron conjuring up various characters for this tribute to the shipyard. Dan has described it as a warts and all portrait of a group of men and tackles the political issues arising: “I do touch on, and it’s only a very light touch, the sectarian question of the shipyard and the fact that it was a protestant community by and large that worked in it. My take on it is if they built the factory in Rome, the place would have been full of Catholics but they didn’t. They built it in East Belfast where it’s a very heavily protestant unionist community because that is what had grown up there.”
It’s easy to forget that Catholics and Protestants worked side by side in those days: “The 25 guys that I interviewed were all very keen to tell me that there was no malice whatsoever from themselves towards any other religion or community. They did tell stories of Asian boats coming in and they would have seen black faces before anybody else. But those guys told me that around the 12th of July if there was going to be bother they would have said to their catholic mates: ‘Don’t you come in tomorrow. I’ll clock you in and out. You’ll be here but you won’t be here. Just stay home and stay safe’. And they would have had the day off.”
The Boat Factory was “born” on the Newtownards Road, the flashpoint of the recent flag protests. Dan rehearsed the play here to prompt some reflection among his own community.
Although a very Belfast story, the play has already travelled to Edinburgh (where it was received so well, it was then invited to London) and New York. Can foreign audiences understand and relate? “You might not understand all the words in the opera but you get the sense of it and hopefully the musicality of it (the play) allowed people who it was very alien to to follow it. Then having said that, pure New Yorkers said they understood every word. One woman, we were very pleased: She writes Days of our Lives which is their Coronation Street. She invited us to her house, she had three Emmy awards sitting on her mantelpiece. My daughter was delighted because they talk about it in friends. But she said she got everything, she understood everything. Many New Yorkers did say that as well. A lot of expats came. There was a woman who came who was a New Yorker but had a photograph of her father who died in the shipyard.”
For the full interview, see the July 20 print edition of The Irish World.
The Boat Factory is showing at King’s Head Theatre, London from July 23 to August 17. For more information, go to: www.kingsheadtheatre.com. You can call the box office on 020 7478 0160.