Playwright who highlights working-class Protestant perspectives
Playwright Gary Mitchell has been viewed as a highly skilled storyteller whose work offers clear eyed and intelligent analyses of Northern Irish society from a working class Protestant perspective.
His focus on the raw wounds left behind by years of violence is distinctive and unwavering, giving his work a distinguishing, claustrophobic and intense quality, and winning both national and international acclaim.
Born in Rathcoole, north Belfast, in 1965, Mitchell left school at 15. Initially interested in acting, he joined a drama group, but ‘found it difficult to believe how hard it was to find a play about my community … Plays about Protestants were difficult to find, and the ones that did seemed removed from my experience’ (The Irish Times). Mitchell consequently set about writing such plays, and his first play for radio, The World, the Flesh and the Devil, won the BBC Young Playwrights Competition in 1991. This was followed by A Tearful of Dreams for BBC Radio 4 in 1993.
Mitchell’s first stage play, Independent Voice, was produced by Belfast theatre company Tinderbox in 1993. A piece about two ambitious young journalists who get caught up in a story which threatens their business, friendship and lives, it was praised by Belfast newspaper Sunday Life as ‘absorbing and disturbing’, and The Irish Times described the writer himself as ‘showing considerable courage’. Soon after, Mitchell became both the first Protestant and the first Northern Irish writer to win the Stewart Parker BBC Radio Drama Award (in 1993).
In a Little World of Our Own (1997) proved to be Mitchell’s national breakthrough. Lauded for its representation of the Protestant loyalist working class, it was premiered by Dublin’s National Theatre Society/Abbey Theatre amid allegations and denials that theatres in Northern Ireland considered it too contentious. The touring production later played to packed houses in Belfast.
Gary Mitchell’s subsequent works include Tearing the Loom (1998), a historical drama set in the turmoil of the1798 rebellion, and As the Beast Sleeps (1998), about loyalty and betrayal at a time of change. Trust and Energy were both produced in 1999, while 2000 saw first productions of Holding Cell as part of the convictions project, Marching On and The Force of Change. Loyal Women followed in 2003.
Mitchell's political thrillers have satirised the paralimitaries who hold power within their community. In 2005 Mitchell's home was attacked by men carrying baseball bats, their faces hidden by football scarves. Others petrol bombed his car which exploded in his driveway. He was told that every "Mitchell had to get out or be killed in four hours". The paramilitaries had been enraged by his plays and sought to silence him. Mitchell now lives in a secret location...
Mitchell has also written prize-winning plays for television, short films, and documentaries.Mitchell’s work has been highly praised for its moral toughness and meticulous plots. Occasional criticism of a tendency towards melodrama are far outweighed by those who believe his work ‘keeps subverting our moral certainties’ (The Guardian), ‘avoids hectoring or moralising by being utterly compelling’ (Independent on Sunday), and offers ‘deeply disturbing viewing’ (Daily Telegraph).
Remnants of Fear (2006) is the first play Mitchell has written since Loyalist paramilitaries issued those death-threats. It explores the lives of family torn by the turbulent post-ceasefire politics of working class loyalism. It concerns the dilemma of Tony, a teenager torn between choosing the join the organization or to find another alternative.With this play Mitchell shows he continues to be a playwright of considerable talent and courage.
© Ophelia Byrne
Remnants of Fear runs from 03 August until 19 August in The Rock Theatre, BIFHE, Whiterock Road as part of the West-Belfast Feile.