Tinderbox Show Us What We're Made Of

The theatre company's fearless new three-in-one production confronts humanity's fundamental questions

Theatre on offer in Belfast, and Northern Ireland more generally, tends to come in certain varieties. Not 57, but there is for example the serious school of political and thoughtful plays produced by the likes of Owen McCafferty and Gary Mitchell. There is comedy based drama, with the continuing output from the creators of Give My Head Peace, Tim McGarry and Damon Quinn, and playwrights such as Marie Jones. You could tuck the sometimes wonderful Grimes and McKee in here too.

Then there is the newish, defiantly accessible, laugh-a-minute genre you might dub hen night drama, popularised by writers such as the impressive Leesa Harker and Donna O'Connor. This often comes with a sexual content age warning. Finally, there is the work of the fairly experimental theatre groups, Bruiser, Big Telly and Tinderbox, who have been producing thought-provoking drama for a couple of decades.

Under new artistic director Patrick J O’Reilly, whose background is in European and physical theatre, Tinderbox is doing something slightly different for its latest outing in premiering three new one-act plays under the umbrella title What We’re Made Of.

Originally inspired by issues surrounding the refugee crisis following a writers’ conference involving Croatian and Northern Irish writers, there is happily no direct mention of Brexit. Yet the question of identity hovers over all three works.

As actress Kerri Quinn notes in discussing her role as Emma in Daragh Carville’s new work History, emotional identity comes into this. 'We see this couple, their love and a relationship that breaks,' she says. 'It’s a warts and all piece, about wanting something you can’t have, yet when you get it, realising you don’t want it.'

The structure moves backwards and forwards in time. And at the start, we experience via the couple that hit of first love. Quinn, who delivered a blinding performance as the title character in Educating Rita at the Lyric Theatre earlier in the year, reveals it to be a subject that's surfaced throughout rehearsals.

Kerri Quinn

Kerri Quinn

'We’ve talked about whether you ever stop having feelings for that first love. Then you have all the 'what ifs'', she continues. 'I still think fondly of my first teenage relationship.'

This is a passionate work, and you can’t help wondering whether it’s easier to act physical love onstage if you have a certain link with your fellow actor. Quinn nods. 'When the couple’s love is rekindled in History, it’s electric and cheesy and is almost something that is uncomfortable to watch. But I think there’s a connection with Patrick McBrearty, who plays Declan, that you don’t have with the rest of the cast.'

We see the man’s and woman’s vulnerability but in typical Tinderbox style, it isn’t predictable and there are two other characters on stage, possibly facilitators providing some distance. In a way, the play is about change, necessary change, as its title suggests. 'At one point my character says "You haven’t changed", Quinn adds. 'That’s the problem.'

Playwright Daragh Carville's relationship with Tinderbox predates even that of Emma and Declan. 'History is certainly a love story of a kind and is about a couple at two separate times in their lives, he says. 'They first meet in their early twenties, on the night of the millennium, then come together in the present day, much older and not necessarily wiser.'

Over the course of nearly 25 years Carville and the company have produced some award-winning work. 'The first play I ever wrote, aged 21, was called The Grandfather Grave and Tinderbox did a rehearsed reading', he says. 'I was living in France and then came back to Belfast where I did my first proper play with them, Language Roulette, which was put on at the Old MAC.'

He recalls company co-founder Tim Loane with affection, as well as other theatre workers he's come to know. 'I’ve worked with dramaturg Hanna Slättne and when she arrived, her role was exciting. It lit the flame and the company lived up to its name.'

Patrick McBrearty.png

Patrick McBrearty

In recent years financial cutbacks have forced change upon Tinderbox, but Carville believes they've always been able to reinvent themselves whenever necessary. 'It’s like Trigger’s broom in Only Fools and Horses' he says, 'he keeps replacing bits of it'.

One trait remains, though, and that is Tinderbox's interest in storytelling, now via a physical, visual theatrical language. 'It feels like working with a new company in some ways and that is exciting.'

Patrick J O’Reilly, the new artistic director and something of a dramatic powerhouse, shares the enthusiasm across the production's other works. Hiatus is an intriguing joint effort between playwrights from Northern Ireland and Croatia.

'This play looks at history, at who’s right and who’s wrong, at the black and white ideas when really it’s grey,' he says. 'Hen, the third piece, is about gender, how choices (about sexuality) are taken away from us at a young age and we’re never sure which of the two main genders the character is.'

O’Reilly, whose CV includes a crackling performance of Gogol’s short story Nose, admits that Hiatus taps into the European theatrical tradition that he relishes. Hanna Slättne echoes this, highlighting the influence of the 'political, collective tradition' from Croatia. She says the style is different and it's not so director-led.

Hiatus is also a polyvocal piece, which means a collection of voices on stage with no automatic sense of a leader. One of four dramatists involved, Jonathan Bailie usually writes unaccompanied, but found the collaboration to be an exciting way of working. He, John McCann, Vedrana Klepica, and Ivor Martinić started with a simple, yet harrowing question: 'What would you do if you lost everything?'

Patrick J O'Reilly.png

Patrick J O'Reilly

'This was partly to do with the refugee crisis and we have three people in a camp,' he says, 'all of them from the West, so questions of entitlement wouldn’t affect them.' This slightly Sartrean line-up includes a translator, the Cook, who is not named and has suffered a trauma in some unspecified war, and the lover. 

'It’s not directly about racism,' grants Baillie. 'The question I was interested in was what happens when the systems you believe in let you down. It’s very much like the situation in Calais at the moment; people are stuck and the system is backed up.'

As he explains, some of the most fundamental issues affecting our world are addressed. 'We look at human rights and ask if they exist for these people. There’s a line when the Translator says, "These agencies are here for us, yes?"' That is a question, of course. Later on, she asks whether human rights are for people but not for individuals.

O'Reilly brings the curtain down with a mission statement of sorts: 'At Tinderbox, we’re not interested in the fourth wall, but in breaking it.' With that audiences can expect a fascinating night of theatre, no cosy realism, and a real challenge to our preconceptions.

What We’re Made Of is at the Crescent Arts Centre from Thursday, September 15 to Friday 23 at 7.30pm (previewing on Wednesday 14th) with matinees at 3.00pm on the 17th and 18th. Tickets are available from Crescent Arts Centre by phoning 028 9024 2338 or online. Click here to book now.