Over the Bridge with Martin Lynch

The playwright talks about his decision to adapt the iconic play

Over the Bridge

is perhaps one of the most iconic plays in Ulster theatre history. Written by former shipyard worker Sam Thompson and set against the backdrop of the 1950s IRA Border Campaign,

Over the Bridge

is an unflinching and un-whitewashed look at an outbreak of sectarianism in a Belfast shipyard and how the trade union officials struggle to deal with it.

 

Over The Bridge centres on the treatment of one young Catholic worker, Peter O’Boyle. When the mob gathers to expel the terrified O’Boyle, it is veteran Trade Unionist Davy Mitchell, a Protestant, who stands by his fellow worker – with tragic circumstances.

It was a play unlikely to find success in 1950s Ulster. When Thompson first approached James Ellis, The Ulster Theatre Group director, he reportedly pitched his script with the challenging statement, ‘I got a play you wouldn’t touch with a bargepole.’

He was wrong about Ellis, who became one of the play’s champions, but right about The Ulster Theatre Group. Although they initially accepted the play the Board of Director’s lost their bottle before the first show, condemning Over the Bridge as ‘full of grossly vicious phrases and situations which would undoubtedly offend and affront every section of the public’.

That decision caused a split in The Ulster Theatre Group, leading Ellis and many of the actors to resign on principle, and exposed the limited range in which Ulster theatre was expected to function. What it didn’t do was stop Over the Bridge’s production.

The play was staged for the first time in Belfast on Jan 26, 1960, by Ellis’ new company Over the Bridge Productions. It was groundbreaking. Sam Hanna Bell, friend and mentor of Thompson, described it as ‘the unclean spirit of sectarianism had been dragged before the floodlights and examined with passion, pity and corrosive laughter’. It was feted in The Irish Times as ‘a brickbat hurled violently against bigotry’.

So when Martin Lynch, playwright and director of Greenshoot Productions, decided to stage his own adaptation of Thompson’s seminal work he must have known he was courting controversy. So why do it?

‘[Over the Bridge] was Sam Thompson’s first play and it’s over-written in a lot of places and it’s a bit didactic politically,’ he says. ‘I always thought that if I got a good go at it I could do a good adaptation that would modernise it as a structural piece and help it along.’

But does a play credited with changing Northern Ireland’s cultural geography at the time it was written really need helped along?

Lynch would argue that it does and he might have a point.

‘If Greenshoot Productions wasn’t doing Over the Bridge this year then it wouldn’t be done,’ he points out. ‘Sam Thompson is neglected. Probably because the play isn’t perfect.’

The aim of his adaptation is to correct faults he recognises from his own early career. Faults that Thompson, who died after writing only four plays, never got the chance or experience to amend himself. The last thing that Lynch wants is to change the core ethos and message of a play he calls ‘great’ and admits to lusting after.

He has worked closely with Thompson’s estate and surviving members from the original production to make sure his adaptation honours the original. To help ensure that he has Rachel O’Riordan, director of Owen McCafferty’s latest play The Absence of Women, working with him as director on Over the Bridge.

The play also has a magnificent cast of actors including Frankie McCafferty, Billy Carter, Michael Liebmann, Lalor Roddy, Tony Flynn, Richard Clements, Walter McMonagle, Karen Hassen and Matthew McElhinney. The professionals star alongside community actors, many of whose familial connections with the shipyards give them a vested interest and genealogical resonance with the themes of the play.

In addition to casting actors from community groups Lynch has also committed Green Shoot Productions to two special community peformances at St. Kevin’s Hall, N. Queen Street, Belfast on Friday March 12 and Saturday March 13 at 8.00pm. Most of these tickets will be offered free of charge to community groups throughout Belfast such as, New Lodge Arts, Carrick Hill Community Centre, Hammer Youth Club, and more. 

Lynch just wants Over the Bridge to be seen again.

‘It’s an important play,’ he says. ‘It’s a seminal play in Ulster theatre development. It’s a play about working-class people at a time when most plays were about Lady Bracknell screwing this one or owing money to that one and about the upper classes or middle classes in England. And here was Sam Thompson writing about the plain people of East Belfast.'

Lynch thinks that Over the Bridge is particular relevant at the moment, during a period where, he says, Belfast is more divided than ever before. Another play from 1950 that Lynch is interested in, Bonefire by Gerald McNamara, deals with similar themes, bristling with political tension and energy. Subjects that have always been prominent in Lynch and Thompson’s work.

That’s why if anyone was going to adapt Thompson’s play then Lynch seems the natural choice. Both men came from very similar social and philosophical spaces that influenced their work throughout their creative life.

‘We were both brought up in very similar socio-economic backgrounds, in two up and two downs with him in East Belfast and me in North Belfast. The only core difference was that he had a Protestant background and I had a Catholic background,’ Lynch says firmly. ‘I regard that as a minimal difference.’