Stewart Parker Memorial Lecture

Award-winning actor Adrian Dunbar commemorates the late playwright at the Belfast Festival

The School of Creative Arts at Queen’s University, where acclaimed playwright Stewart Parker studied, established the Stewart Parker Memorial Lecture last year on the 25th anniversary of Parker’s death.

The lecture this year, delivered by actor and director Adrian Dunbar, is held in the Brian Friel Theatre at Queen’s, as part of the 2014 Ulster Bank Belfast Festival at Queen’s.

Dunbar, one of Northern Ireland’s most successful actors, is clearly somewhat discomfited by the role of lecturer. After a self-conscious entrance, the removal of his jacket and the rolling up of his sleeves, he promises a talk that will not resemble a university lecture, but follow more the lines of a ‘George Best-type talk’.

In the event, he reads from a well-prepared script which is engaging, thoughtful and does not shy away from making a few sharp points in favour of radicalism, the primary theme of his discourse. One feels that Parker would have approved.

Dunbar begins with the words 'Travelling east on the Holywood Road...', words that establish another thread that weaves through his 45-minute talk, that of geography. Dunbar clearly has a great affection for the locations in Northern Ireland that were part of his, and Stewart Parker’s, early lives.

Enniskillen looms large for Dunbar, and he speaks with fond nostalgia about his boyhood and school days. An evocative litany of Belfast street names sets the scene for his re-telling of Parker’s own early life, and the influence of a particularly enlightened drama teacher who once cast Parker as Everyman, a talismanic experience which Dunbar feels informed much of Parker’s later writing.

Mention of Philip Hobsbawn’s writing group brings with it the inevitable reference to Seamus Heaney, who recalled years later in a newspaper article the first time Parker first stood up to read a poem to the group, struggling with the artificial leg he wore from his second year at Queen’s, the result of an early battle with cancer.

Heaney saw Parker’s physical struggle as emblematic of the struggles faced by a young man of his background finding success in the world of literature.

Dunbar continues with references to the growing social and political strife of the time – to Burntollet, 'our Kent State' and the beginning of a consciousness that prompted Parker, and many others, to make sense of the Troubles through writing and theatre.

Dunbar also points to references in Parker’s writing that established him as a man before his time, predicting conditions and trends that are accepted as the norm now but which were, in his day, unheard of. He reads a passage from Parker’s Spokesong in which a character forsees a 'fleet of civic bikes', pre-dating the ‘Boris Bike’ by several decades.

When Dunbar reads from Parker’s work, it is at times difficult to tell where the playwright’s words end and Dunbar’s own commentary resumes. Parker’s words provide him with a springboard from which to launch his own thoughts on a variety of issues.

References to history are inevitably focussed on events north of the border, but Dunbar also introduces a note of caution regarding the way in which the Republic of Ireland might commemorate the 100th anniversary of the Easter Rising, naming a number of Irish patriots who have been ‘airbrushed’ from historical records.

He criticises the present trend of ‘social engineering’ in Northern Ireland, which advocates leaving the past behind, calling it both 'impractical and pernicious' to do so and warning of 'wilful historic amnesia'. Quoting from John Hewitt’s poem 'Neither An Elegy Nor a Manifesto', the final line ‘Bear in mind these dead’ seems to sum up Dunbar’s feelings, and those of Parker.

In the Q&A session that follows Dunbar’s talk, someone asks what Dunbar thinks Parker would be writing about today, were he alive. Dunbar’s response is that he would be writing about the same things; the things we tend not to talk about, in the spirit of moving on.

The Ulster Bank Belfast Festival at Queen's continues until November 1. Find the full programme in our Festivals section.