Meeting at Menin Gate

Victim becomes aggressor in a Belgium hotel room in Martin Lynch's 'vivid and harrowing' new play

Playwright and newly appointed Belfast Ambassador Martin Lynch presents Meeting at Menin Gate, the final instalment of Green Shoot Productions' Ulster Trilogy, at The MAC in Belfast until September 21.

The Ulster Trilogy was made up by Sam Millar’s Brother’s in Arms and Ron Hutchinson’s Paisley and Me. These plays were intended by Green Shoot to be an 'audit of where Northern Ireland is today'. However, I’m not certain that Lynch's new play is going to provide any answers.

The first act is weighted with reams of character exposition, peculiar incidental tics and spotty gobbets of personal history. We learn a lot about these characters directly from themselves, as the narrative is essentially two monologues intercut with character vignettes from the two supporting cast – Maria Connolly and Marty McGuire – both of whom are fine as necessary, and intended comic foils.

Liz (Andrea Irvine) is a trades union official in her 40s whose staunchly protestant policeman father was shot by the IRA when she was 13. Terry (James Doran) is an ex-IRA man a decade her senior. They meet in Belgium, serially portrayed here as the most boring place in Europe – it’s not, it’s actually quite nice.

Meeting at Menin Gate

 

There they tour the graveyards and memorials of the First World War, and from this journey a tentative romance starts to bloom until Liz discovers something about Terry’s past.

The first act is larded with incidentals to a distracting degree. For example, Terry’s love of art seems like it’s going to be a major part of the story, but it’s really just there to show you how much he’s changed. And, equally, it’s difficult to ascertain Lynch’s intention with his decision to give both of the leads a form of OCD.

Is it supposed to bond them as damaged outsiders forever seeking to establish their own internal order as they feel paralysed and impotent in the face their own personal histories, or is it, especially in Liz’ case – as Terry’s behavioural idiosyncrasies don’t seem to impact on him in the slightest – to lend her a stepping off point into the madness to come?

Are we being handed the peculiar notion that excessive hand-washing leads to acts of violence? A sort of Lady MacBeth in reverse? Some of the characterisation seems strange.

As revelations pour out of Liz, she attempts to humanise her father – a laid-back, guitar playing Leonard Cohen fan – to Terry. Is this the same man who headed the most religious house in the village, whose wife was a loveless, sourpuss and who joined the RUC? I mean, it is possible…

Two musical signatures are established in this early part of the play. Liz leaves a trade union meeting and immediately pumps up The Jam’s 'Town Called Malice' as she drives into the city. Is this supposed to be yet another manifestation of her oddness? I’m sure that a lot of 45-year-old women listen to Paul Weller in their cars; it’s not symptomatic of some deeper malaise.

Terry, meanwhile, is all over the shop with his musical subtext, from his repeated refrain of 'Why can’t I live like Frank Sinatra?', to his positing of Amen Corner’s 'If Paradise is Half as Nice' as a sort of pre-Troubles idyllic anthem. There is also an ironic use of T Rex’s 'Ride a White Swan' during the darker, later passages of the play.

If the over-long first half is a tentative rom-com starring two damaged people from either side of the community who find love in the killing fields of Europe – Menin Gate is a memorial to the thousands of unknown soldiers who perished during the First World War – then the second act is one of the strangest things I have ever seen in the theatre.

The staging, the play’s ultimate conclusion and what it asks of the actors are barely hinted at in the first act: now we’re in a completely different place. What Meeting at Menin Gate begins to resemble is a dark-hearted inversion of a Whitehall farce: from the hotel bedroom setting, to the appearance of a befuddled Belgian/Italian waiter, to the scenes of trouser dropping.

The audience certainly laugh, but I can't decide if it’s in genuine mirth or a collective nervous laugh – there’s a man apparently being tortured in the room, after all. As Liz sets about Terry with a two by four, one wag shouts out 'Crack ‘im!'.

When ultimately the drugged and devastated Terry is de-bagged, so Liz can further pursue her campaign of torture. There is a whoop from the back of the hall as his buttocks are revealed, as though it is Mrs Brown’s Boys we are watching, not an incapacitated man being tortured with a staple-gun. Rarely have I felt so out of step with my fellow audience members.

Both of the leads acquit themselves well in what must have been an extraordinarily uncomfortable and exhausting second act, so it is a shame that neither is able to take a bow when the standing ovation comes, as Irvine is too busy untying Doran’s legs.

The intention here, after we have spent the whole of the first act getting to know and to like Terry, is to place the victim as aggressor in a visceral and sustained act of revenge. There are blurred lines when it comes to assimilating the Troubles – the permutations are still being felt in ever more confusing and sophisticated ways. If this play doesn’t attempt to answer these questions, it does present them as a vivid and harrowing tableau. The message, however, is still a confusing one.

Meeting at Menin Gate runs in The MAC, Belfast until September 21, before touring to the Market Place Theatre, Armagh; Strule Arts Centre, Omagh; Burnavon Theatre, Cookstown; Alley Arts Centre, Strabane; and the Ardhowen Theatre, Fermanagh.

Meeting at Menin Gate