Founded in 1991 by Pam Brighton, Marie Jones and Mark Lambert, DubbelJoint Productions is a leading, prolific, and frequently controversial independent theatre company which focuses on the development of new writing from its firm west Belfast roots.
Highlighting the fact that it is ‘absorbed in the ethos of that area’, the company has premiered many new works on subject matter ranging from the Northern Ireland peace process to policing, and hunger strikes to black taxis.
The organisation’s work has featured regularly in both the theatre and news sections of the media, and while including some of the biggest hits to emerge from the independent theatre sector, has also toured extensively to a huge range of community venues throughout the island of Ireland and beyond.
DubbelJoint’s name comes from Dub(lin) Bel(fast) Joint. Founded to create plays with an appeal throughout the island of Ireland, and to make that work as widely available as possible, its productions have frequently addressed large and often provocative themes of identity, culture and history by rooting these in local, highly accessible subject matter.
Early DubbelJoint productions included premieres of Hang All the Harpers (1991), an exploration by Marie Jones and Shane Connaughton of the role Irish music has played in national identity, as well as Jones’ earthy Belfast comedy Christmas Eve Can Kill You (1992).
The White, the Gold and the Gangrene (1993), a take on the 1916 Easter Rising by Terry Eagleton, followed, along with The Government Inspector (1993), an adaptation by Marie Jones of Nikolay Gogol’s classic work to a small Ulster town in the late nineteenth century.
Successful as some of these proved, with the last mentioned work touring extensively both on the island of Ireland and to London, the next two productions won DubbelJoint huge mainstream interest and acclaim.
Staged for the first time at the West Belfast Festival in August 1994, and touring at the time of the IRA ceasefire announcement, A Night in November became a smash-hit success. Written by Marie Jones, directed by Pam Brighton (Artistic Director of DubbelJoint since its foundation) and featuring a tour-de-force performance by actor Dan Gordon, this one man show was ‘provoked rather than inspired by’ the sectarianism which surrounded the Northern Ireland versus Republic of Ireland World Cup qualifying match in November 1993.
Addressing themes of cultural identity, sectarianism and ‘the possibility of embracing your fellow human beings’ (The Times), the play was perceived as artistically epitomising a moment of possibility and hope in the long history of theTroubles. Detractors thought the work simplistic, but others deemed it essential viewing, and it was attended by thousands of people on an extraordinary touring circuit which included Dublin, London and New York.
This was followed by another Jones work, Women on the Verge of HRT. The story of two forty-something Belfast women who confront their looming midlife crisis on a weekend pilgrimage to meet singer Daniel O’Donnell, the production was another instant and popular success. Credited as bringing a ‘new audience to village halls and metropolitan theatres’ on its Irish tours, it transferred to London for a season in 1997.
Two subsequent premieres of works by Jones, Stones in His Pockets (1996), a play about two thirty-something’s experiences as extras on a Hollywood movie shot on location in Ireland, and Eddie Bottom’s Dream (1996), a satire on Germans building a golf-course in Donegal, won rather less acclaim however, and thereafter, the company took new directions.
Most notable of these was three high-profile collaborations with Justus Community Theatre, a west Belfast based company founded by women of that area to produce works of theatre telling their own story in their own words. The first of these was Just a Prisoner’s Wife (1996), a play written and performed by the women themselves about the experiences of those women who visit, support and sustain republican prisoners. Viewed as deeply moving, the production won the first Belfast City Council award for Best Arts Partnership.
A subsequent co-production proved more controversial. Binlids (1997), by Christine Poland, Brenda Murphy, Danny Morrisson and Jake MacSiacáis was an ambitious, uncompromising, in-your-face production tracing the history of west Belfast since 1971. This attracted sell out audiences but also proved highly contentious, sparking immediate and unprecedented public debate on issues including propaganda and representation, state funding for the arts, and the function of theatre in a divided society now moving into a peace process.
Though DubbelJoint’s next two productions, Eugene O’Neill’s A Moon for the Misbegotten (1998) and an adaptation by Peter Sheridan of Mother of All the Behans (1998) by Brendan Behan, proved less contentious, 1999 proved a turbulent year for the company. A Mother’s Heart (1999) by Pearse Elliott, exploring four women’s struggles to come to terms with the loss of children in the Troubles, led to fierce attacks on and defences of the work. Some queried whether ‘the real-life survivors recognise themselves in these angry, unforgiving women’ (Irish Times), while it was also thought a disturbing, hard hitting creation featuring ‘testimonies of loss, howls of despair’ (Belfast Telegraph).
Forced Upon Us (1999), by Christine Poland and Brenda Murphy, generated unprecedented levels of debate. Another DubbelJoint/JustUs collaboration, it set out to focus on the ‘creation of the Northern Ireland state and the systems set up to police it’. At short notice, its production funding was withdrawn by the Arts Council of Northern Ireland (ACNI), prompting accusations from the company that the action was politically motivated. ACNI denied this, stating that its decision was based on artistic judgement. The story sparked considerable debate on issues of censorship and quality control, and was covered by national media.
Nonetheless, like the other co-productions, the co-production did subsequently open at the West Belfast Festival to full houses and appreciative audience response. Critical opinion split on by now familiar lines, often also in leader sections and opinion columns. The play was described both as ‘a work of astonishing artistic and community merit … it involves the people; it influences change; it gives a voice to the voiceless’ (editorial, Andersonstown News) and as ‘a sectarian play … it does not challenge its audience … That story is already disproportionately represented and it is a tired story’ (Malachi O’Doherty, Belfast Telegraph).
Since then, JustUs has gone on to create its own work in west Belfast, while DubbleJoint’s premieres have continued apace. The company’s focus appears to be on creating works which typically, and still with a west Belfast perspective, tell ‘an inspiring story of ordinary people empowering themselves towards extraordinary achievements’ (The Irish Times on Black Taxis). These have included Des, by Brian Campbell (2000), featuring Jim Doran and telling the story of radical priest Father Des Wilson’s work in west Belfast, and The Laughter of Our Children, by Brian Campbell and Laurence McKeown (2001), a play examining issues around the 1981 hunger strikes.
Working Class Heroes (2002) was an adaptation by Brenda Murphy of Robert Tressell’s Ragged Trousered Philanthropists set in 1930s Belfast, while Paddy on the Road by Brian Moore (2002) featured Terry O’Neill on the life and music of Christy Moore. A Cold House, by Brian Campbell and Laurence McKeown, addressed issues around the Northern Ireland peace process, and Black Taxis by Brian Moore (2003), a play that proved ‘a comedy, a musical, a lecture on a successful commercial venture, a history of the Troubles (according to a black taxi driver) and a portrait of west Belfast’ (Irish News).
Some previous critics of the company’s work particularly praised A Cold House for challenging both republicans and unionists alike. ‘The dialogue was deeply moving and most of those listening found the experience extremely difficult’ (Roy Garland, Irish News).
In general, DubbelJoint’s productions are typically assessed as presenting subject matter ‘through the prism of nationalist West Belfast’ (Belfast Telegraph). The company is viewed as intuitively in touch with this constituency. Its productions continue most often to be premiered at the West Belfast Festival, then touring extensively at home with occasional tours abroad.
Overall, DubbelJoint’s work continues to provoke ‘outrage in some and enthusiastic support in others’ (Irish Times on Des). Most recently, its work attracted major national and international attention in the Brighton v Jones case at London’s High Court over Stones in His Pockets. Dubblejoint has been deemed to have ‘a sense of commitment missing from Ulster’s middle-class theatre’ (Belfast Newsletter), and to produce a ‘kind of raw, political theatre we don’t often see today’ (The Guardian on Laughter of Our Children).
Criticism has suggested that it produces work which ‘does not challenge its audience’ (Malachi O’Doherty, Belfast Telegraph), to which the company has responded in the past that it is ‘seeking a balance in the overall perception of what makes West Belfast tick … if the peace process is to gain meaning, this experience has to be understood’ (Pam Brighton). The company has continued to live life in the public eye on stage and off. Its designation as ‘ever-feisty’ (Sunday Life) is well deserved.
© Ophelia Byrne 2004