The Pride of the Marching Bands
Playwright Jonathan Burgess hopes to demystify the marching band culture in a new play at the Waterside Theatre in Derry~Londonderry
You might think that Protestant, working class life is pretty well covered in Northern Irish drama thanks to playwrights like Gary Mitchell, Marie Jones et al, but, according to Derry~Londonderry playwright, Jonathan Burgess, you'd be wrong.
'Protestant, working class culture hasn't been reflected by Gary Mitchell,' argues Burgess, 'whose plays are not mainstream, nor by Marie Jones, whose One Night in November is, in my view, an utter demonisation of working class people. There's not a sympathetic Protestant character in it.'
In fact, Burgess feels so strongly about the perceived lack of representation of the Protestant, working class community in Northern Irish theatre that his latest play, The Pride, was written, he claims, as an attempt to redress the balance.
The Pride is a play about the lives, loves and laments of a group of people, of various ages and of both sexes, who make up a fictional marching band from Derry~Londonderry. It was commissioned as part of the UK City of Culture celebrations.
Burgess trained at the University of Liverpool and is an accomplished theatre director and producer. He has also written several plays that reflect the Protestant voice, including Rememberances and Exodus, which documented the displacement of Protestant families in Derry~Londonderry during the 1960s and 70s.
The Pride tells the story of Robbie, who lives for the band, and Davie, who drinks Robbie's beer while he does it. Robbie's grumpy father-in-law believes that the band is a waste of time, while his two sons share their father's love of the marching band culture.
The play was written following several rounds of interviews with members of the Pride of the Orange and Blue Flute Band in Derry~Londonderry, but also features some imagined scenarios and a dash of comedy.
In writing the play, Burgess, now aged 41, set out to demystify the marching band culture, which remains central to the Protestant, unionist community across Northern Ireland. 'People see a kind of monolith when they see the men playing in their uniforms, but they're all different,' Burgess attests.
'Band culture is massive here, with the official figure of 660 bands operating in Northern Ireland. But it's also misunderstood, with people assuming every band is an Orange band. Although the bands do play for the Orange Order and the Apprentice Boys, they also perform in ordinary parades. And while it's seen as completely male-dominated, there are quite a few woman players now.'
In fact, this apparent female band invasion has provided Burgess with a nice plotline for The Pride, which is set in a bandmaster's living room in Derry~Londonderry before the band set off for Glasgow to celebrate their 25th anniversary.
'The comedy stems from the fact that the band is choosing a new colour,' says Burgess. 'That is, a new person to lead them in parades. They're looking for three women to front the band. They've got 17 girls to choose from, but the wives and girlfriends aren't so keen.' Here Burgess laughs and admits that the sense of competition between the women works well onstage.
For pathos, Burgess didn't have to look too far, drawing on the real life story of a local family who belong to Derry~Londonderry's band aristocracy and who lost a disabled child who previously attended parades in a wheelchair. 'There is sadness, but the band pulls together. In a way, that's what I most want to capture,' adds Burgess, 'the band ethos.'
As one of his characters, Billy, puts it in an argument with his father-in-law: 'You’re right Dessie, (life) doesn’t (just revolve around the band), but by God, it’s a hell of a lot better than most of the alternatives... Do you remember this place before the band? We had a bar and a shop. Miles away from anywhere, not able to go to the town for the fear of getting a kicking on a Saturday afternoon...'
Although not a musician, Burgess has been a band follower since he was a minor. He remembers first hearing the stirring sounds of the pipers and the drummers as a boy of five or six.
'I was born two weeks after Bloody Sunday, and three weeks afterwards my parents had to leave our house,' he recalls. 'But I remember the build-up to the Twelfth of August, which was more significant to us than the Twelfth of July. The Relief of Derry was big, and the excitement made it like Christmas. The pipe music is in my blood.'
Burgess's favourite tunes include 'Blood and Thunder' and 'Derry's Walls', although he also enjoys standards like 'When the Saints (Go Marching In)' and 'Abide with Me'. Away from his pipe band habit, Burgess admits to having Paloma Faith and Lana del Rey, amongst others, on his iPod.
The Pride features 19 performers – 'Actors from 11 to 65, of whom eight are professional' – though there isn't that much live music performance in the play. Instead, Burgess follows the rhythms of the bandsmen and women's lives. His play holds up a mirror to a society that Burgess feels is culturally neglected. 'The characters get validated by this [their involvement in band culture], and a discussion starts for them,' he says.
Burgess also sees The Pride as an educational piece, an art work that can potentially aid in the fight against prejudice. In that regard, Burgess believes that there is still vital work to be done. As such, he has been holding theatre workshops in his native Derry~Londonderry to get people involved in the creative process as a way of building bridges and establishing cross-community relationships.
Burgess concludes by relating the sad story about a family who worked to raise money for the carers who had given them respite during their child's long illness. The family hoped to present the carer's with a cheque, but, because their chosen venue was a hall where the Apprentice Boys met, the recipients would not attend.
Such sorry episodes are an unfortunate and very real occurance across Northern Ireland, even so long after the Good Friday Agreement was signed, even with so many years of peace under our collective belt.
But music, argues Burgess, is a universal language, and the arts a way for the people of Northern Ireland to come together. Burgess has two young sons. To them he will hand on the baton. 'Oh yes, my sons love the band music too,' he beams. 'There's always a pipe band CD to hand.'
The Pride runs in the Waterside Theatre, Derry~Londonderry from July 3 – 4.