The Black North
Three short plays about charm, luck and politics - 'cause it's grim up north, writes Joe Nawaz
It’s grim in the north of Ireland, black even. That’s the wry implication in the title of a trilogy of plays showcasing at Féile an Phobail this weekend. The Black North from Rawlife Theatre Company takes its name not just from the traditional derisory description of the six counties, but also from the fact that the tribal denizens in this corner of the rock have, well, quite a shady reputation.
Writer Paul Kennedy says the idea for the trilogy came about from a desire to explore traditional Irish stereotypes. 'One of the plays is about charm – we’re famous for our charm apparently. The second is about luck, as in ‘luck of the Irish’. And the third is, inevitably, about politics. Politics was something I avoided writing about for years, because frankly I’m bored with it, but I guess you can’t really avoid it when you’re writing a play about the north.'
For The Black North, Kennedy has drawn from personal experience. 'I’m from Ballymena and as a kid, if you had something wrong with you or needed a cure, you went to see the local old woman,' explains the bafflingly dated 30-year old. 'That’s what the charm part of the play is about – cures and curses. The ‘luck’ part is loosely based on me losing a whole pile of money in Las Vegas back in 2006, while the politics play has nothing to do with me at all.'
This last piece presents the rather delicious scenario of the first minister’s daughter bringing home her new boyfriend. Sure enough, he turns out to be a former terrorist. 'I have to stress that the characters are entirely fictitious,' Kennedy laughs. 'I wanted to tell a story that favoured nobody in particular by showed them all up as flawed people. Neither side comes out looking good in the end.
'The funny thing is, when I was desperately trying to avoid the usual clichés, people whose opinion I trust were telling me to take it further. They told tell me to up the stakes and make the boyfriend a terrorist. I thought, ‘Come on, that is so obvious.' But I’m really happy with the end result. The cast is great and we managed to get Niall Cusack as the first minister, which is amazing. I hope it will get people talking.'
Kennedy, a Falls Road resident, says he is happy to bring back political theatre to the west of the city. 'I think west Belfast audiences have missed out since Dubblejoint Theatre Company folded. There’s been a gap there for provocative and challenging work. I’m hoping that The Black North does that. I know that audiences here are sophisticated enough that they don’t need to be talked down to.'
For Kennedy The Black North continues the tradition of what he describes as a 'dying art form'. 'The short play isn’t something you see as much of these days. It’s really an acquired skill to condense a story into a 20 minute format. I’ve seen a lot of plays and films lately which, frankly, could have done with some editing. There’s often a 15 minute idea wrapped in two hours of padding.'
No such bloated excess with The Black North. The three succinct and spritely tales will surely delight those who live in perennial fear of the protracted second act. Director Martin McSharry has pioneered the revival of the short play’s popularity through Rawlife’s recent invigorating programme of lunchtime performances in Belfast’s Cathedral Quarter. He is, Kennedy feels, a perfect fit for his barbed vignettes.
'Martin read the script and loved it. He’s been doing a lot of great work with short plays recently so it was great that he got on board. It’s also good to see that there are platforms for emerging writers out there. Not many, but I think it’s getting better.'
As both an actor and writer, Kennedy takes care to clearly delineate the two. 'It’s true that as a writer when you see actors reading your lines, the urge is to stick your nose in and interfere. But, ultimately, you have to trust the director and the cast. It’s something I’m actually OK with.'
He also marvels at the legions of people who seem to be writing scripts in every coffee shop in town. 'I can’t get my head around that. You go into Starbucks and every other table there’s somebody with their MacBook out. For me, as a writer, I need absolute solitude. Acting’s the communal part of theatre, surely not the writing process. But fair play to them, if their getting their stuff on TV.'
With other projects in the offing, including work with his own company Jigsaw Theatre Productions and a commission to write the 'world’s first on-line interactive movie', Kennedy has scant time to appreciate the current anticipation surrounding The Black North. In common with most writers worth their salt, however, and when forced into a précis, he momentarily hesitates. 'The charm one will charm the pants off people, the political one will make people angry and the luck one... well, it'll be great too!'