The Lyric Theatre

The only theatre in Belfast to remain open throughout the Troubles

The Lyric Theatre is Northern Ireland’s only producing building-based theatre. Originally created with the ambition of creating ‘a style suitable for dramatic poetry’, particularly the work of WB Yeats, it has built strong associations with many of the major actors and writers to emerge over more than five decades.

There have been two distinct periods in its history. Before 1968, the Lyric operated in the main as a privately run close-knit theatre company, with a significant emphasis on the presentation of Irish and international poetic drama.

Since 1968, it has operated as the major fully-fledged publicly subsidised producing theatre in Northern Ireland, with a considerably broader based remit featuring new writing, world and Irish classics, musicals and contemporary drama.

Inaugurated in 1951 by passionate theatre lovers Pearse and Mary O’Malley, the Lyric Players Theatre began with a presentation of Robert Farren’s Lost Light before an invited audience at the O’Malley home at Ulsterville House in Belfast.

This proved a success, and the Players went on to present works by Yeats, Austin Clarke and Valentin Iremonger for audiences of about 25 people in the tiny drawing-room theatre. In 1952 the company moved to a studio space in a loft of the former stables at the O’Malleys’ new residence at Derryvolgie Avenue.

This was to be the theatre’s home for the next 16 years. Still privately funded, and with a stage space of just 3 by 3.5m, the group and its activities quickly expanded throughout the 1950s to become a vibrant and innovative company.

The aim was to create ‘a style suitable for dramatic poetry’, with Yeats the primary inspiration. These guidelines allowed a challenging repertoire to be developed, including works by Irish, Greek, English, American, Russian, Spanish, Italian and Chinese writers.

In so doing the Lyric rapidly established a reputation for a distinctive group style of acting, particularly in its Yeats presentations. This won critical acclaim on company visits to festivals such as the Dublin International Theatre Festival.

In turn, the company spirit was itself reinforced by a host of related activities including poetry recitals, lectures, art exhibitions, a drama school, an academy of music and a thriving publishing endeavour, Threshold. This was edited not only by Mary O’Malley, but also a series of guest editors including writers such as Seamus Heaney, John Montague, John Boyd, Roy McFadden and Patrick Galvin.

In 1960, with the scope of its work having expanded hugely, the Lyric Players became a non-profit making association, its aim being to build a new theatre. Within five years Austin Clarke, together with fellow poets Padraic Colum, Seamus Heaney, John Hewitt, Thomas Kinsella, Roy McFadden and WR Rodgers, laid the foundation stone for the new theatre at a site on Ridgeway Street on the banks of the Lagan in south Belfast.

Opened in October 1968, and despite an intensely problematic transition period when the theatre struggled to adjust to its new environment and public status, this site remains the Lyric’s home.

The theatre has faced major challenges, including the dark days of the early Troubles from 1971 to 72 when the Lyric was the only theatre in Belfast to remain open.

It quickly broadened its original programming remit, with markedly less emphasis on Yeats and poetic drama, and the Ridgeway Street stage came to see a wider variety of theatre produced. Popular musicals were programmed alongside Irish and world dramatists, while a developing commitment to new writing also evolved, with varying degrees of emphasis over the years.

The result was a succession of world premieres by writers including John Boyd, Anne Devlin, Patrick Galvin, Robin Glendinning, Jennifer Johnston, Martin Lynch, Gary Mitchell, Stewart Parker, Christina Reid and Graham Reid. Many of these works proved successful, with several contributing to a ‘growing Belfast tradition of social realism’. A writer-in-residence scheme in the 1980s contributed to what has been termed a ‘golden age’ for the theatre.

Meanwhile, though the early distinctive company playing style was not to survive the move to Ridgeway Street, the Lyric has nonetheless welcomed a succession of noted actors to its stage, including Liam Neeson, who began his professional career at the theatre and is now the Lyric’s patron.

Other actors associated with the theatre have included Louis Rolston, Doreen Hepburn, Lynda Steadman, Honor Blackman, Adrian Dunbar, Ciaran Hinds, Frances Tomelty, Ian McElhinney, Stella McCusker and Conleth Hill.

In recent years the Lyric has also built a particularly strong connection with playwright Marie Jones, many of whose works have proved sell-out successes at the theatre. Most notable was Stones in His Pockets, which the theatre presented in April 1999. This would go on to become a sensational worldwide success, be translated into many languages, become the subject of a High Court action in London (Brighton v Jones, 2004), and win a host of major international awards.

Though Jones’s Lyric presentations have pleased audiences, this approach has also led to criticism for a recent over-emphasis on populist programming, a charge the theatre stoutly rejects, stating that work such as Jones’s has ‘important points to make’.

From small private endeavour to major subsidised public theatre, the Lyric has endured to emerge, like Northern Irish society, at a crossroads. It has responded by unveiling ambitious plans for the future, including a planned new 400 seat auditorium. As the only producing professional company in Northern Ireland since the 1800s to itself reach a half-century, the Lyric is now the repository of a producing tradition. Its continuity and longevity has contributed greatly towards promoting in establishing theatre as part of the everyday landscape of Northern Ireland.

© Ophelia Byrne 2004