White Star of the North Rises

Rosemary Jenkinson trades contemporary Belfast for the Titanic era in a new play for the Lyric Theatre

It is 9am on Monday morning and, due to traffic delays, the coffee shop at the Lyric Theatre isn’t open yet. Playwright Rosemary Jenkinson, whose Titanic play White Star of the North debuts at the theatre on March 24, gives the sole barista a hopeful look as he pauses by the till.

‘Do you think they are ready to serve?’ she asks. The barista disappears through a door and she sighs. ‘I guess not.’ At a push, Jenkinson – a tall, slim woman with a ready laugh – could probably turn her hand to running the coffee machine herself. Asked about what she did before becoming a writer, she sits up straight, takes a deep breath and starts ticking job titles off one by one.

Jenkinson has worked in art galleries and jewellery stores, on a charity helpline and at a holiday resort, in the civil service, in both a chicken and a sausage roll factory and more. It would take, she says, an hour to list all her previous jobs, and she has to be in rehearsals for 10.

‘I’ve always thought that writers should do a lot of different jobs,’ Jenkinson smiles, because, presumably, it's character building and a mine of material. So does she ever miss the helpline or the civil service? Jenkinson blinks and snorts, ‘God, no!’

Luckily for her, another jaunt in the sausage roll factory is not something that Jenkinson need worry about. White Star of the North is her tenth play, a nice round number, and writing is currently paying the bills. 

Jenkinson started her writing career with short stories. They did quite well, too. She has won the Northern Short Story competition and has stories included in Cutting the Skin: An Anthology of New Irish Writing, the Sunday Tribune (short listed for the Hennessey Award) and the Fish Anthology.

Explaining what occasioned her shift in focus and format, however, Jenkinson inexplicibly appears abashed and amused. She recalls that a short story writer of her acquaintance had written a play that was critically well received, 'And I thought, “Well, I’m a better short story writer than him, I bet I’d write better plays too.” And that’s where it all started.’

Subsequently Jenkinson was accepted onto Rough Magic Theatre’s SEED programme, which she credits with making her a ‘proper playwright’. For Jenkinson, until recently, that meant writing about urban Belfast, politics, street-fights and drugs. ‘I would always have described myself as a contemporary writer,’ Jenkinson says.

She’s got her coffee now, and thoughtfully stirs in milk as she talks. It was the experience of writing a short Titanic piece for Kabosh Theatre Company that changed her theatrical direction. ‘I really enjoyed working on it. Afterwards, I said to Richard [Croxford, artistic director at the Lyric Theatre ] to keep me in mind if anything Titanic related came up. And he did.’

White Star of the North, which is based in part on Jenkinson's own family history, sees two members of the troubled Massey family set sail on the Titanic. What happens next will affect Crawford Massey for the rest of his life – obviously.

It might seem an abrupt change of pace – from the bad lads of Belfast to a berth on the Titanic – but Jenkinson would disagree. She argues that the period details might change but people stay the same. ‘There isn't as much swearing and the drugs might be different, but the morphine tinctures and potions that were popularly used at the time were addictive,' Jenkinson says.

She adds that people in the early 1900s were just as interested in celebrities too, noting that, 'I have someone talking about Oscar Wilde and Arthur Conan Doyle. Back then, like now, Belfast was on the crest of a wave of innovation and excitement. There’s a very modern feel to the play.’

What surprised Jenkinson most about writing White Star of the North was just how time-consuming it was. Researching the play, she notes, took longer than writing it. And then she didn’t even use all the information she had uncovered. Only a few period details made it into the text.

That sense of minimalism has informed Jenkinson’s approach to the entire production. The set, she reveals, only sketches in the lavish interior of the Titanic. Jenkinson argues that, with period pieces, it is often best to leave it to the imagination. ‘Besides,’ she adds lightly. ‘We’re on the small stage [the Naughton Studio] here. There’s no way we could recreate the Titanic in detail.’

The anniversary of the Titanic disaster has inspired numerous dramas for stage and screen, including a BBC Northern Ireland dramatisation of the Titanic Inquiry, mini-series on BBC and ITV, and a verbatim piece by Owen McCafferty, which is set to open The MAC in Belfast in April. Isn’t the creative field getting a bit crowded?

‘Well, we are going to be the first to open,’ Jenkinson says with a chuckle. And she isn’t worried about comparisons, either, arguing that 'there is plenty of inspiration to go round'. 1912, after all, was a huge year in Northern Ireland. Winston Churchill visited Belfast to address a pro-Home Rule meeting, Ken McArthur won Gold at the Olympics in South Africa and the Ulster Covenant, which plays a large part in the play, was signed.

White Star of the North is about a family with troubles, the Ulster covenant and the aftermath of the Titanic,’ Jenkinson concludes, confidently. ‘It is an intimate look at an epic era.’