The Virgin Father

Jimmy McAleavey casts the stage lights back on one of the Bible's most overlooked figures in a new revival of his challenging, one-man play

It is a story which has endured for over two thousand years; a story that is simple yet mystifyingly complex; a story that forms the foundation stone of the world's largest religion. Yet one of its key players remains a shadowy, somewhat neglected figure, a fact which prompted former academic and journalist Jimmy McAleavey to make St. Joseph the subject of his first play; The Virgin Father.

It was written in 2008 and premiered in the following year by Tinderbox Theatre Company at Belfast's Old Museum Arts Centre as part of a studio season of small-scale new work.

'It was my first break,' says McAleavey. 'The play went down very well. Although it only had a few performances, Tinderbox tell me that it is the one that is most often asked for. In the publicity, it is being referred to as an audience favourite, an Ulster classic, which is very nice, especially as not that many people would have seen it first time around.'

This was the first project in a long, productive relationship between McAleavey and one of Northern Ireland’s longest-established independent companies. Like all close partnerships with strong artistic visions, the development processes for memorable plays like The Virgin Father, The Sign of the Whale and, most recently, the dark psychological drama Unhome have been lively, sparky affairs.

But over the years, warmth and mutual regard have flourished, as summed up by McAleavey in an interview for Culture NI in 2011, when he fondly described Tinderbox as being like '… a kindly uncle or aunt, who maybe drinks too much but always brings you back a present'.

The storyline of this challenging play revolves around Joe, an ordinary guy who fell in love with and married a quiet, unremarkable local girl called Mary, who was pregnant with another man’s child. Family life is often fraught and when the boy is approached to join a cult, Joe strives desperately to protect him.

From the outset, Mary has been convinced that there was something very special, even unique, about her pregnancy, a situation which Joe struggles agonisingly to come to terms with.

'It’s the New Testament story,' explains McAleavey. 'There have been a few incarnations of it over the years, not least Colm Toibin’s The Testament of Mary, which was an examination of the interior life of Mary as a solitary older woman. It came out three or four years later and was a very fine piece of work, but in some ways it killed the future of the play because of the similarities between them. So it’s very nice to have it revived now, very flattering and lovely really.

'I had been thinking about St. Joseph and the way he has been almost completely overlooked in the story, airbrushed out of it. When I was writing it, there were a lot of high profile atheist evangelicals about, people like Richard Dawkins and Christopher Hitchens, who were involved in very loud and aggressive atheistic public discourse. I thought what they were saying missed the point, missed the humanity in the story. They failed to recognise its appeal, its enduring nature. I found their approach very dismissive.

'So, Joseph is the hero of this play. He does not believe that his wife is giving birth to the son of God. He is not a Christian but he is temptingly offered the option to believe at a time when he desperately needs it. The play is about the choice he makes and the urgency of that choice.'

Over the years, McAleavey’s work has become recognised and praised for its intensity, its dark, contemplative tone, its tangential approach routes and its refusal to go down the path of black comedy, a term he thoroughly dislikes. When asked specifically about it, he refers to it as '… an awful trope in Irish drama.'

One does not approach a McAleavey play in anticipation of easy laughs - or many laughs at all, in fact. The central character of Monsters, Dinosaurs and Ghosts, his last play for Dublin's Abbey Theatre, was described in an Irish Times review as '… a cadaverous and haunted soul … a thin, jittery, caustic wraith'.

When asked if a similar level of intensity haunts The Virgin Father, he replies succinctly, 'I hope so.' Before handing the script back to Tinderbox, he took a long, hard look at it and decided it needed major reworking. 

'I opened it for the first time in seven years,' he says. 'It’s a monologue and on re-reading it, one thing suddenly struck me: "Who the f**k’s he talking to?" The answer was nobody. I had to do something about that. It’s had a complete rewrite and while it is still a monologue, there are now other characters who move in and out of Joe's focus.

'There always was something very urgent going on in the present tense; it was never just a story. It’s still set in the present tense; that urgency is still there, but I think it works better now.'

The play opened up for him some fascinating avenues of investigation into the life and character of St. Joseph.

Virgin Father 2

'I really didn’t know much about him,' he says. 'He virtually disappears out of the Gospels and we don’t know how his life developed or ended. There was a medieval tradition that suggested that Joseph was ninety and Mary was twelve when they married. It was a way of preserving her virginity.

'There are a number of paintings of the death of St. Joseph, which show Jesus beside him at his deathbed. This implies that he died before the crucifixion, but who’s to say. It could be just a piece of artistic imagining. The medieval mystery plays took the hand out of him and portrayed him as an elderly cuckold. He has not been well served by posterity. There’s even a song written about the donkey - 'Little Donkey'. I’ve tried to do redress the balance a little and do my bit for Joseph.'

Now acknowledged as possessing one of Ireland’s most distinctive voices, McAleavey recently received one of three Major Individual Awards from the Arts Council of Northern Ireland, the highest honour the agency bestows on an individual artist in recognition of his impressive contribution to the arts. It will enable him to work on two large-scale new plays, with the potential for national and international touring.

'It helps to pay for the heating' he says. 'Most artists work for well below the minimum wage. A writer could be paid £8,000 for a full length play, for instance. You might write one play a year... So to receive the £15,000 award was great and very much appreciated.

'Last year, Tinderbox took a huge knock to its funding and has had to completely regroup and reshape itself. Jobs have been lost. I see the return of this play as the swan song of the old guard before the arrival of the new guard.

'Its artistic director Mick Duke is now based in Glasgow, so he is rehearsing the play over there. It will be his last production for Tinderbox. It’s still the same creative team as first time around, with Mick [Duke] directing and the Scottish actor Stewart Ennis playing Joe, and the rehearsal logistics are quite appropriate because the play is set in a kind of Scotland. I wanted it to be somewhere that was definitely not Northern Ireland, but a bit like it.' 

The play will tour to an intriguing mix of venues, opening on March 15 in Cushendall Golf Club then progressing to Down Arts Centre, Downpatrick (18), the Playhouse in Derry (19) and ending with a run at the Lyric Theatre from March 29 to April 3. The writer is delighted that it is doing the rounds of the region, as well as with the neat timing of this long-awaited revival.

'I’m curious to see how it will be received,' he chuckles. 'I’ve no doubt that some people might be offended. Who knows, we could see a torch burning mob heading for the sea in Cushendall! But I’m pleased that it is being revived at Easter 2016, a hundred years after the 1916 Easter Rising.

'There was nothing random about the timing of the Rising. It happened precisely because it was Easter, with its connotations of martyrdom and sacrifice. It’s a politically seductive notion. It was no coincidence that those rebels of 1916 chose Easter as the time to mount their insurrection and this is a play is about a man similarly caught up in a maze of political conflict, faith and martyrdom'.

To find out more about The Virgin Father by Jimmy McAleavey or book tickets visit www.tinderbox.org.uk/productions.