Adam Shaw talks to Neil Bull about a play that explores present day reconciliation with Northern Ireland’s murderous past
As Northern Ireland seeks to overcome its latest stalemate in forming a new Government, there are a number of issues which need resolving. The political nuances, major controversies, recent deaths and the small matter of Brexit mean tumultuous times lie ahead for the Six Counties.
It is an ideal – for want of a better word – juncture, therefore, for David Ireland’s Everything Between Us to make its way to the stage in London. A dark comedy centred on the daughters of a murdered Ulster loyalist, it examines the roles of hatred and forgiveness at a fictional Truth and Reconciliation Commission. And while there would be no suggestion that the current events in Stormont, and Northern Ireland, mirror those of the decades before, this concept of accommodation and working together is apposite.
What’s more, as director Neil Bull explains, this is a play which anyone can relate to; a play with universal themes.
“It’s about two sisters dealing with post-trauma and trying to find some way to face the truth and reconcile with themselves,” he says. “It’s a personal story but it just happens to be set in this particular situation. What David’s done is taken something personal and offered up the opportunity to look at the human condition.”
Neil recalls speaking to a Greek Cypriot woman who immediately connected with the issues of division and rebuilding. He also notes how the writer has created a clever situation in which the audience are left, deliberately, without an answer.
“This play stays with you afterwards. There are no resolutions, when you leave the theatre, things aren’t finished.
“And in the same way, the situation for people in this region isn’t truly finished. He’s asking us for our attempts at figuring out the answer.”
So while the themes might reach out in one way or another to all who witness it, there is no escaping the fact that this is an Irish, and a Northern Irish, story.
Only through the years of brutal violence and bitter sectarianism can one truly understand the hatred between two sides. The efforts to rectify this, and the positive results, must also be represented. As Neil explains, the situation in Northern Ireland is a far cry from the bloody past.
“The country has come a long, long way. It is a very different place from what it once was. The Army has gone and there has been some extraordinary investment.
“You go to Belfast and it’s beautiful; it’s a cultural hub. This is a once-feared place that people now actively want to visit. And the people are rich and wonderful, as they are in the Republic of Ireland.”
And yet there are still divisions. Low-level violence, recreational rioting and general disruptions at any show of cultural pride happen each year. This, Neil says, is what makes the play even more important. There are lines drawn in Northern Ireland even if they have faded somewhat. And these lines can be seen all across the world. Brexit, the proposed Scottish Referendum, attitudes towards the President of the US – social divisions are commonplace.
“This play lays bare the trauma and dysfunctionality that affects people and how they can go about confronting this through truth and reconciliation.
“You see tribalism and how we cling to our family groups and align ourselves to our tribe. That leads into national identity and national belonging and how we identify ourselves.
“There’re themes of patriotism and nationalism. How patriotism needs no enemy because patriotism is love of place.
“Nationalism on the other hand, sort of demands an enemy and there’s a feeling that one has lost one’s place.”
He makes reference to conflicts which are happening across the world and how they come about because they are based on causes which people truly believe in. But there is a price to all of this, ranging from political instability to the loss of life. Through this play, Neil explains, we are asking “how do you live side by side with the person that you hated, the person you were fighting against, the person you wanted to kill?” A number of other issues are addressed. It looks at how the current generation, “the peace babies”, feel about the Troubles.
Role of women
He asks whether these people feel a “duty to hatred” and how learning to let go could be conceived as dishonouring the sacrifice made by others. The more likely scenario, of course, is that people see forgiveness as a positive and know that the future of Northern Ireland relies on peace and understanding. The role of women is examined, the only two characters on stage are both female, and Neil believes this is a wonderful feature.
“David doesn’t choose men, he chooses two women and I think it’s more powerful his way. There’s not enough theatre for women to be honest.
“This world of the Troubles was dominated by men. You think of McGuinness, Adams, Paisley but where were the women? How were they impacted upon?”
And while the subject matter is serious, the comedy elements give the audience a bit of a welcome break.
“These moments of comedy, they take you by surprise but they’re necessary to the play. It stops it from being too relentless and it gives the correct image of Irish people loving the craic, as they say.”
Again, the destruction which ravaged Northern Ireland for years could not be forgotten over a few jokes but it is one way in which reconciliation can be achieved. Just ask the perenniallylaughing, former-archenemies McGuinness and Paisley who became known as ‘The Chuckle Brothers’. Neil hopes to show what things were like – a difficult challenge with such a small cast in such a particular setting. But he believes the combination of writing, acting and directing can create an adequate picture of how catastrophic the Troubles were and how things moved on.
“There was a culture of violence and a strong feeling of hate. It wounded a lot of people and here we have two very wounded people. “Then it’s about finding the strength to let something go and forgive somebody. This would not have been easy – it still isn’t – and you have to respect all sides.”
He views it as “incredibly courageous writing” because not only is it packed with hard-hitting themes but it brings to people’s attention the fact that people held these opinions and said such things. What is perhaps more striking, however, is that they were able to, in some capacity at least, modify these seemingly unalterable opinions. That is a message which anyone can admire, and hopefully translate into the world today.
Everything Between Us is at Finborough Theatre on Sundays, Mondays and Tuesdays from 30 April to 16 May.
• For tickets and more information, visit www.finboroughtheatre.co.uk or call 0844 847 1652.