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‘An uneasy reminder’

Actress Flora Montgomery told David Hennessy about her new play Under the Black Rock which is an ‘uneasy reminder’ of the Troubles in Northern Ireland and why we can’t go back to that.

The actress Flora Montgomery’s screen credits include When Brendan Met Trudy which was written by Roddy Doyle, Basic Instinct 2 and the most recent series of The Crown to name just a few of her credits that stretch back to the 90s.

Perhaps even more comfortable and renowned onstage Flora, 49, has been lauded for her stage work winning the Irish Times Best Actress Award in 1995 for her role as the lead in Strindberg’s Miss Julie.

She also performed in the world premiere of The Reckoning, a two-hander with Jonathan Pryce, and in the award winning Dinner, both in the West End.

Flora is back onstage this week.

Along with Evanna Lynch, well known from the Harry Potter films, Flora is part of the Irish cast of Under the Black Rock, a new play that reflects on the danger and the treachery of the Troubles.

From Co. Down herself Flora describes it as ‘an uneasy reminder’ of those black days, something that is especially poignant as we approach the 25th anniversary of the Good Friday Agreement.

The play poses questions about family loyalty, morality and how young men and women are drawn into violence.

The story centres around a family at the height of the violence in Northern Ireland.

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Flora plays Sandra Ryan, mother of Evanna’s Niamh, a woman who is drawn into the conflict as part of a community where no one is quite who they seem.

The cast also  includes John Nayagam (Emmerdale), Matthew Blaney who we interviewed this year when he was part of Not Now at the Finborough and Glen Wallace who has starred in Hollyoaks and Coronation Street.

Flora spoke to The Irish World about how Brexit had thrown Northern Ireland’s peace into doubt. We would just like to point out she was speaking before the recent new deal.

Flora told The Irish World: “It’s an interesting time to be doing a play like this because it’s a very sensitive time given Brexit and what is happening in the north.

“I’ve just been in Belfast for the week and there isn’t one side or another side, there’s so many different voices in Belfast. It’s such an amazing place that to do a play that is looking back has to be also a play that’s looking forward.

“Otherwise there’s no point doing a play about this, everybody has their own take on the events of the 80s and 90s or the Troubles as a whole and you have to shine a light that will make people think differently.

“The play itself, like all drama is about people and people’s relationships and the strength of those relationships, revolves around a family and it’s about loyalty, betrayal, the lengths people will go to to look after the people they love. And whether that means risking putting those people in great danger to try and get them out of other danger.

“You know, people making the wrong call thinking it’s the right call to protect the people that they love and living with those mistakes and living with those burdens.

“I play a parent in it and from the perspective of being a parent myself, all you really want to do is try and trust yourself to make the right decisions for your children.

“In this play with the backdrop of danger and betrayal and violence that is there, as a parent, you’re making life or death decisions for your children that you hope will save their lives.

“It’s about protection and forgiveness and I think it’s also, sadly, tribal.

“You could say this is about the Troubles but this can be anywhere in the world.

“Like any good story, it’s really about the people and those individuals involved.

“I don’t think the play comes with any great message, which I think is really good.

“I think you can’t start throwing around political ideas, you can’t start preaching and coming out with a message on this subject because it’s so personal, and everyone has had their own experience.

“It’s a story. And you take away from that story what you want, and maybe something new.

“I think what’s interesting is our cast is from all over Ireland.

“It’s not important, but we have Catholics Protestants for anybody who cares anymore. It doesn’t really matter.

“It’s 25 years since the Good Friday Agreement and I think we do have a relative amount of hindsight and we do have a very clear present.

“Belfast is just amazing.

“It’s got so much going for it. It’s such a dynamic, modern, brilliant city, and I just think people don’t want to risk losing the path that it’s on.

“It’s all been put into turmoil and bigger questions have come out of nowhere because of Brexit.

“Long buried sentiments of insecurity or allegiance have resurfaced and I think that is a huge tragedy.

“How we all deal with the next stage is really important because nobody wants to go back to that, nobody.

“And we can’t, we just can’t.”

Flora in rehearsals with her stage husband John Nayagam. Rehearsal pics: Gregory Haney.

You can remember the bad times, what was it like to see Brexit come along and put the peace at risk?

“I think it is a huge tragedy, and it was so unnecessary.

“And the wise sages that had built the Good Friday Agreement, like Blair and Major and even Clinton, all came out and said, when the Brexit campaign was happening, ‘You’re not reading the signs, you’re not looking at what’s really going to happen, and Northern Ireland is going to really suffer and it’s not going to be an easy thing. This isn’t something that they can just put down in the small print at the bottom of the deal. These are people’s lives. This is the livelihood and identity of a whole country, Northern and Southern Ireland. This can’t be a footnote in the Brexit deal’.

“The sad thing is, five years ago, I would have said, ‘Let’s not do a play about this, we don’t need to talk about this. It’s done. Let’s just move on’.

“And now, weirdly enough, I think, ‘We need to remind you of what it was like’.

“Whereas five years ago, there was no point because everybody wanted to move forward.

“I think we’re in a really, really sensitive, really important time. And I am really nervous, I really care what happens.

“I care for peace, I care for the next generation.”

The play centres around the Ryan family with Flora’s Sandra being the wife of Cashel Ryan who is in the IRA, played by John Nayagam, and the mother to Evanna Lynch’s Niamh Ryan.

“She is, like every mother, desperately trying to protect everybody.

“The minute you become a mother, you turn into a bear.

“I was always quite a forgiving, slightly diplomatic, easy going person.

“But if there is something unjust or dangerous around my kids, I will turn into a lioness at the drop of a hat.

“My character is also deeply anti-violence, she knows that violence is not the answer.

“She is trying to protect everybody, trying to keep them out of this vortex of violence that seems to surround them, but at the same time in doing so, she makes terrible decisions, and they backfire.

“And in trying to protect them from danger, she ends up putting them in to more danger but she’s motivated by love, and motivated by love of her family.

“It’s two parents who are involved in different elements of the Troubles, some very dark, and it’s about how the children then get involved and the parents protecting them or not protecting them.

“And then around that family the other characters as well, who’s loyal to what?

“It is self- interest versus bigger interests, self-interest versus the bigger picture, betrayal, people working undercover for different organisations- Nobody is what they seem at all.

“What do people act on? Do they act on the preservation of themselves, the preservation of their children? Or do they act on retaliation, revenge, or money?

“It’s what motivates different people.

“What’s really interesting about the play is almost every character in this play pretty much makes a very, very big black or white decision to act one way or another.

“The motivation behind each of those decisions is what really interests me in this play.

“Is it love? Is it greed? Is it identity? Is it revenge? Is it a child wanting to prove themselves to their parents? Is it a father wanting to prove themselves to a community? Is it a mother wanting to protect everybody they can?

“Or is it a member of an organisation doing something for money? Or are they doing it for an ideal?

“So that, for me is the really interesting thing about the play: In every decision, what motivates people?

“I definitely think that happened during that time.

“If we picked up the stones, the rocks of those years, underneath each horrific event are very different motivations.”

In addition to playing the Ryan family matriarch, Flora also plays Briget who is ‘a strategic officer, a very important person in an organisation and she is hard and motivated by political ideals and pure emotion’.

“It’s almost like a version of The Sopranos. (In The Sopranos) everybody was trying to do something different and it always backfired. People were trying to protect each other and it was always so messy.

“The Ryans have a huge identity in the local community.

“Cashel Ryan, who’s my husband, is a quiet but dangerous man.

“What it touches on is not only the betrayal within the family, but they’re trying to discover who is also working for the British Army so there’s an element of whodunnit.

“I love that.

“I was turning the pages going, ‘Who is it? Who of all these people could be the person that’s the grass?’

“Everyone’s looking over their shoulder, no one trusts anyone.

“Even though there’s a sense of extreme loyalty, you never know who’s about to sell you out.

“I think that is something that I hadn’t thought about before in terms of the Troubles, the extreme cases of people working for the opposite side.

“I just hadn’t really thought that that kind of paranoia had been there to such a degree, that both sides were infiltrated with people.

“So in this play, any time there’s an operation to be done, it’s done in groups of three that only know particular bits of information.

“So there’s quite a lot of threads of things that the audience knows, other people in the play don’t know and as an audience member, you’re kind of going, ‘But he didn’t know what time the bomb was gonna go off. Oh, she did, but she didn’t know the password..’

“So you’re trying to work out, ‘How could that person have known that?’

“So in a way the audience ends up feeling slightly like the members of the IRA within the plan.

“Because that really comes across in the play, even the members of the IRA that were working very closely in this play- They don’t trust each other. No one trusts each other.

“And even just saying that makes me realise how important it is that we don’t go back to that time because how exhausting and how horrific to live in a time where there was so little trust, and so much suspicion. And who would ever want to return to that?”

Flora in The Crown with Johnny Lee Miller who played John Major.

You may have seen Flora in the most recent series of Netflix’s The Crown where she plays Norma Major. It is quite a jump to go from playing the wife of Prime Minister John Major, a British establishment figure to playing an operative member of the IRA, but then that is the life of an actor.

“I love it. That is absolutely the life of the actor.

“And it’s one of the reasons why I took on the role: One extreme right to the other, playing the wife of the Prime Minister to sitting in a bar playing an operative member of the IRA who’s planning her next bomb.

“The privilege of doing what I do is I can understand Bridget. I can understand her motivation as much as I can understand Norma Major just wanting to be a very, very lovely woman and support her husband and be the prime minister’s wife.

“And who knows what will be next? I could be playing a Viking warrior and that’s what’s brilliant.

“I think it’s a real privilege.

“I mean The Crown was amazing.

“Today, I was doing the voiceover for a video game where I’m playing a kind of dragon slayer.

“You have to be very responsible when you do something like this.

“You can’t mess around with it.

“Playing a dragon slayer in a video game. That’s really fun and you have to take it very seriously but I do think there is a responsibility when you embark on a journey with a story like this which involves the IRA and very political extremes that people don’t want to really address anymore.

“I think you have to take it with great responsibility. You have to think about it and be considerate, and be honest and be authentic.

“I think people should see this play because it’s a reminder.

“It’s an uneasy reminder. This is an uneasy play.

“And that’s what’s great about it. This is not some fiddly diddly Irish story, and it’s not some horrific, overdramatised story about the Troubles. It’s the real thing and it’s uncomfortable. It doesn’t have happy endings and it’s not particularly nice.

“This is what it was like.”

Under the Black Rock is at the Arcola Theatre 2- 25 March.

For more information, click here.

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