The Rules of the Game

Does everyone know the rules of sectarianism? This play turns the spotlight on the audience to find out

I once sat beside a man on a train who was determined to discover my religion. I decided to play a game and deliberately give him non-specific answers to questions such as: What’s your name? Which part of Belfast do you come from? What school did you go to? After some persistence he eventually gave up, just as I was about to hold up my hands and shout ‘OK. I’m a Prod!’

The Rules of the Game is an innovative piece of theatre developed by Partisan Productions as part a project funded by the Carrickfergus, Antrim and Newtownabbey PEACE III Play Fair Arts Programme. The production was created to shine a light on the conscious and subconscious behaviour that plays out here every day, highlighting unwritten rules learnt from a young age as a means of coping with day-to-day division and sectarianism.

The Rules of the Game focuses on a series of characters who are living or working as a minority among a majority from the ‘other side’. The stories are all based on real life situations and experiences and informed by research from local individuals and community groups.

Most of the actors are volunteers from the various women’s groups and community organisations that participated in the project. Such is the power and confidence of their performances at the Old Courthouse in Antrim, however, it is sometimes difficult to distinguish between the amateur and the professional on stage.

The audience is presented with a series of scenes where the character's perceived religious or political identity becomes an issue in the workplace or elsewhere. The scenes are a mix of the obvious and the subtle expressions of sectarianism common in Northern Ireland.

We are introduced to a young man feeling trapped and in danger on the wrong side of town, a worker trying to hide her religious identity, a staff member being bullied, an awkward situation in a social club and an example of overt sectarian abuse at a sports match.

The characters struggle with how to react, narrating their thoughts as they decide whether it is best to keep their head down and say nothing or stand up and be counted. In one scene, where the protagonist is feeling excluded because of her perceived religion, another character naively declares, ‘There’s no community relations problem here. Never has been. People just keep themselves to themselves.’

How many times have you heard that one? In fact, some of the observations are so close to the bone as to be uncomfortable to watch. However, the overall process of the performance, and the humour involved, enables the audience to think afresh about sensitive issues and to break the old Northern Ireland taboo that you don’t talk about politics or religion in ‘mixed’ company.

After the interval, the audience is invited to pick out scenes that struck a chord and to help the characters explore and discover new options for their lives. These scenes are then replayed according to the suggestions of the audience to see if a different approach might produce a more satisfactory outcome.

Members of the audience are invited up on to the stage to act them out. It is a sign of the success of the venture that the audience is prepared to participate enthusiastically, with a variety of interesting suggestions and a wonderful sense of humour. Rarely have people from Northern Ireland been seen to address difficult issues around sectarianism in such a relaxed and enjoyable manner.

The Rules of the Game is a thought provoking piece of theatre that clearly challenges some of the rules of life in a divided society. It is an enlightening example of the potential and value of the arts for exploring sensitive social issues and in contributing to positive social change.