Over the Bridge

Mark Phelan thinks Sam Thompson's controversial play isn't yet over the hill

2010-11 marks the anniversary of two of the most influential plays in the North’s theatrical canon: St John Ervine’s Mixed Marriage (1911) and Sam Thompson’s Over the Bridge (1960). Both plays place class politics and labour relations centre-stage whilst the socialist ideals expressed in each are extinguished by sectarian violence. Ervine’s play was staged in the Abbey Theatre Dublin, Thompson’s in the Empire Theatre Belfast, but though separated by less than one hundred miles and half a century, the latter play premiered in a different political state as Ireland had been ‘changed utterly’ by partition.

Over the Bridge tackled the endemic anti-Catholic sectarianism of the shipyards and has ever since been hailed for figuratively placing the ship of state in the docks. However, it was not the notionally radical politics of the play for which it became famous, but the reactionary response it precipitated from one patrician figure of the unionist establishment: Richard McKee, Chair of the Group Theatre’s Board of Directors, whose artistic director, Jimmy Ellis, had agreed to produce Thompson’s play.

McKee had other ideas, however, and as Chair of the Group, (further fortified by his position as Vice-President of the Council for the Encouragement of Music and the Arts), he sought to suppress the play on the spurious pretext that the Theatre’s policy was 'to keep political and religious controversies off our stage', which was precisely where Ellis felt they belonged. McKee’s position at CEMA (the precursor to the NI Arts Council) meant his actions smacked of state censorship, something he was not adverse to having only weeks earlier banned a BBC documentary, as a national governor of the same institution, for partisan political reasons.

The lesson for artists, therefore, could not have been clearer and it took considerable courage for Thompson, Ellis et al. to respond to such pressure by forming an independent company, Bridge Productions, to perform Thompson’s play in 1960. The rest, as they say, is history….

…and it must surely have weighed heavy on Martin Lynch as he sat down to adapt Over the Bridge for its 50th anniversary, though in many ways, he is the natural successor to Thompson considering both men’s socialist credentials and life-long commitment to bringing class politics to theatre.

Anniversary revivals, however, are always difficult: some mothball plays into mummified museum pieces whilst others ‘irreverently’ update originals, but it is to both Lynch and director Rachel O’Riordan’s considerable credit that they avoid such difficulties to produce a subtly re-imagined, superbly staged piece of theatre that still seems charged with a powerful political voltage.

Indeed, from the very opening of the play, an atmospheric soundscape of industrial machinery adds an ominous undertone to the local setting of the shipyards whilst Stuart Marshall’s ingenious stage design is revelatory in reconfiguring the Waterfont Hall stage, as raised seating in the round and his two-storied set provides a dynamic arena space for O’Riordan’s deft direction, with actors entering and exiting in dozens of directions to give a kinetic sense of activity whilst implicating the audience in the action.

Marshall and O’Riordan’s physical and visual re-imagining of the play, complemented by James White’s lighting, completely reinvigorates the play, as does Lynch’s adaptation, though Brian Garrett, Thompson’s literary executor, is at pains in the commemorative programme, to emphasise Lynch’s fidelity to Thompson’s text.

Nonetheless, Lynch redresses many of the play’s significant (political) failings whilst still being faithful to the original text. For instance, 'full adherence to the setting and period' stipulated by Garrett is observed by Lynch, but a brief radio broadcast is added to the background of one scene referring to the IRA’s border campaign of the 1950s and the funeral of its dead volunteers, importing a vital political context notably missing from the conflict depicted in the play, whereby an explosion in the shipyards is blamed on the IRA, thus triggering the violent expulsion of all Catholic workers.

Lynch’s most significant alteration involves the play’s only Catholic character, Peter O’Boyle; a problematic figure in the original and of whom we know very little, all of which makes his ‘hysterical’ refusal to leave work when threatened by a mob who have purged all other Catholics from the docks difficult to understand, all the more so as 'slanderous’ allegations that he is involved with an 'illegal republican organisation' are never resolved in the play.

Lynch’s version fleshes out O’Boyle’s character: in one short but significant scene, he describes how his father struggled and sacrificed to provide him the tools and training he needed to secure this highly valued job in the shipyards, (hence his angry defiance at those seeking to drive him out), whilst banter between O’Boyle and Ephraim Smart hints at friendship that transcends tribal, territorial, and trade union divisions, with Ephraim visiting the Falls for the first time to plead with Peter not to come into work for his own safety.

The only onstage violence in Thompson’s play happens when the ‘hysterical’ O’Boyle hurls a hammer at the mob leader who threatens him but Lynch’s version deliberately brings the mob’s offstage violence centre stage so that the audience collectively witness the consequences of Archie Kerr’s sectarian whispering campaign as we watch O’Boyle and Davy Mitchell savagely beaten to pulp.

If Lynch’s version brings much-needed depth to Peter’s character, Billy Carter’s nuanced performance brings it dignity, especially as the melodramatic pistons of the play build towards his closing confrontation with the bloodthirsty mob, Carter’s increasing hysteria is never histrionic; his panicked desperation as he flits from his desire to flee and his determination to stay, is devastating to watch.

Indeed, the entire production is dependent on fine ensemble work. As saintly secular leader of the union, Walter McMonagle perfectly embodies the physical authority and personal integrity of Davy Mitchell, whilst Lalor Roddy is pitch perfect playing Davy’s jaded brother George. Roddy’s bitter badinage with Frankie McCafferty’s Rabbie White, over union regulations provides another terrific combination, whilst McCafferty capitalises on Rabbie the 'ruleatarian' predilection to wave his book of rules before unbelievers and apostates alike in a hilarious exchange when he brandishes his wee blue book at bible-clasping Billy Morgan (Michael Liebmann) when the latter declares he is leaving the union after being born-again.

Liebmann plays Morgan and Archie Kerr, whose sectarian insinuations against O’Boyle drive the conflict at heart of the play, and Liebmann’s alternating sectarian and evangelical convictions in each role convinces right up until Kerr’s seemingly Damascene conversion at the end, when he suddenly sides with O’Boyle against the loyalist lynch mob his sectarian scaremongering helped create.

The fault, however, lies not with Liebmann, but is one of many characterisation weaknesses in the play, though some of these are resolved by Lynch’s removal of problematic scenes and characters; indeed, only one female role remains in Lynch’s version: Davy’s daughter Marion. An O’Caseyesque portrait of suffering femininity, Marion is played with affecting sincerity by a luminous Karen Hassan, especially as she lacerates Tony Flynn’s hapless Mr Fox for his platitudinous condolences on the death of her father, reminding him of how he had ill-treated her father in life as his head foreman.

In one other major alteration to the original play, Ephraim Smart’s streetwise apprentice now styles himself like Buddy Holly, singing his hero’s hits at strategic points throughout the play in what could have been potentially disastrous decision but which is pulled off with comic panache by a terrific Matthew McElhinney, whose final appearance on the scaffold to sing a hymn over Davy’s coffin in the closing scene is profoundly moving.

The shattering sense of loss of the end of the play stems not just from Davy’s death, the only man with the courage to stand beside O’Boyle in his hour of need, but from the despair his death instills in the youthful Baxter (Richard Clements) who remains utterly traumatised by the experience.

Weeping over the coffin at how 'so-called workmates walked away because they said it was none of their business. None of their business, that’s what they said, then they walked away ...' Baxter despairs that 'brotherhood', whether of blood or belief, can never compete against the capitalist forces of individualism or our own atavistic sectarianism; at least not in this city, at this time. Fifty years later, in light of the legacies of our more recent conflict, it is a question that still Troubles our conscience.

That Over the Bridge in 2010 is a powerful piece of theatre is not so much due to the innate strength of the writing, but from the dynamism arising from O’Riordan’s direction and Lynch’s dramaturgical reworking of what is a highly flawed play.

This especially evident in what is perhaps the most effective scene in the play as the loyalist mob mass offstage from where they menacingly start to chant the ‘Billy Boys’ sotto voce in a chorus that slowly swells to a savage crescendo of clattering tools and screams as they bay for the blood of O’Boyle: the effect is terrifying. Confronting them, however, is a defiant O’Boyle who obdurately refuses to leave his work and declares that he is 'standing by his rights', that the mob have 'no right to put me out of my job'.

Voiced from the most public of stages in 1960 to more than 40,000 punters one cannot but be struck by how those words came to reverberate down that decade as O’Boyle’s lonely protest later resonated in the throats of thousands marching in Belfast and Derry for these and other civil rights. Of the 40,000 who had attended Over the Bridge one can only wonder how many subsequently played a part in these marches only to be met with the same violence meted out to the 'defiant bastard' O’Boyle, which in turn prompted the shadows of gunmen lurking offstage in the wings.

Like all the great plays of Irish theatre, Thompson’s Over the Bridge has a prophetic power and is vital in helping us understand our own history. Fellow Belfast playwright Stewart Parker vividly described the experience of viewing the original production of Over the Bridge as 'shattering', and it is both eloquent testimony to Thompson’s talent, and rich tribute to Lynch, O’Riordan and the cast of its anniversary production, that it remains almost equally so today. One can think of no more fitting homage to Sam on the fiftieth anniversary of his most famous play.

Mark Phelan