A Tale of Two Cities in a Play of Two Halves

Jane Coyle's intriguing double-edged play Both Sides, tours venues across Northern Ireland in September and November

My connection to Paris goes back decades, when, as a teenager, I was offered the opportunity to take a diploma in French civilisation at the Sorbonne. But the big adventure that awaited me was a variety of French civilisation that I was not expecting. The irony of being pitched into the mayhem of the student riots of 1968, of academic studies being terminated by the violence raging on the streets of the Latin Quarter was not wasted on me. Unprepared for and unsure of the wider political context, it was, nevertheless, an unforgettable experience to be there in the thick of protests which changed the course of history and which, half a century on, are referred to throughout France as simply les evenements (the events).

The ghosts of iconic writers and artists still stalk the cobbled squares, winding streets and secret stairways of the City of Light. Many corners of the city remain much as they were portrayed centuries ago by the likes of Baudelaire, Hugo, Dégas, Renoir, Toulouse Lautrec and Zola. And Beckett too. In the cafés of Montparnasse, in whose cemetery he and his wife Suzanne are buried, one frequently senses his quiet, watchful physical presence, that thatch of grey hair, those pale, far-seeing eyes, taking in the lives revolving around him and translating them into enduringly fascinating dramatic characters and images.

I brought back a memento from that first visit. I see it on my wall every day. It is a sepia-toned poster, picked up for a few francs from one of the bouquinistes along the Seine. The monochrome image from the 1930s shows two elegant woman seated at a pavement café, gossiping conspiratorially over an espresso. I have always thought that the scenario would make a great set-up for a play.

Over the years, I have returned time and time again. On each encounter it feels fresh and new, welcoming and familiar. But to my growing dismay, there is much about present day Paris that is far from fresh and welcoming. For an increasing number of residents and new arrivals it has become a cold house, where, cheek by jowl with architectural splendour and material wealth, poverty, displacement and homelessness have become very much a part of the urban landscape.

Some 18 months ago, and for no particular reason, a rush of Paris-inspired thoughts popped into my mind…Beckett, cafés, style, wealth, beautiful buildings, refugees, migrants, social deprivation. I thought of the gendarmerie near the Gare de Lyon whose walls are adorned with a line of massive, mournful statues. I thought of Place Monge, uphill from the Pantheon, where a little bronze fountain belches water from the mouths of gargoyles. I thought of the opulent Rue Pierre et Marie Curie and the young beggar who frequently hangs out there. I thought of the homeless ones who winter out on the grills of the Metro stations, taking advantage of the hot air rising. I thought of the Syrian family on the ritzy Avenue Georges V and the smiling child who offered me her tiny, dirty hand in greeting. 

These random images burst onto my computer screen in the form of a stream of consciousness, spoken by a young woman sitting in a café and watching the life of the street go by. She hints obliquely at her own past, a troubling story, a secret she is trying desperately to keep hidden from view. All around she observes cameos of ordinary everyday life - two men loitering beneath a cherry tree, an elegant woman doing her shopping, a disabled man being pushed in a wheelchair by his carer, a deranged old woman leaning on the arm of a street sweeper, a migrant family huddled in a doorway. Beckett would have seen people like them too. What, I wondered, would he have made of them? 

Thus was born Me Here, Me. It was originally intended as a stand-alone piece, in which Beckettian characters and situations pop up unexpectedly - and sometimes mischievously - merging reality with the imagination while focusing on the life of modern day Paris. Sharp eyed Beckett geeks gleefully spotted references to Godot and Endgame, to All That Fall, to Footfalls and Rockaby. Others were oblivious to the connections but said they found themselves drawn into the world of this mysterious young woman.  

I had mentioned it in conversation to Sean Doran, founder and director of the Happy Days Enniskillen International Beckett Festival. He suggested that it might fit nicely into the Impromptu Readings section of his inaugural Beckett Paris Festival. And so it was that, in March of last year, the Belfast actress Hannah Coyle, who lives in Paris, agreed to read the first draft of the script in the historic library of the Centre Cultural Irlandais in front of an audience, which included actor Adrian Dunbar and Nora Hickey, director of the CCI.  

Shortly afterwards, Sean Kelly of the Cathedral Quarter Arts Festival contacted me to ask if it could be included in his 2016 programme. A month later, Hannah returned home to perform the piece in the atmospheric surroundings of the Dark Horse in Commercial Court. Musicians Mark Prescott and Annette Collins, who play for the French dance association Bal Feirste, came on board and, under Rhiann Jeffrey’s direction, their sweet violin and concertina combination added a poignant ambiance to the story.

Both sides

Both Sides tours in September and November

Then the questions started. Who is this girl? What's her name? What happened to her? Who is ‘the disappeared’ she refers to? Where is this street, that square, that building? Is this the past or the present? The piece had left audiences wanting more. The answer to the last two is that the location is anywhere and everywhere in Paris; the time is then and now, the piece is timeless. But the other questions required more specific answers. Slowly, a second monologue began to take shape. Its title Before Before refers to a line in the first, when the girl looks down ruefully at her shabby coat and declares:

'There was a time when I was pretty and wore good clothes. That was before … before'. 

The focus moves south to the Mediterranean city of Nice. We encounter a once-glamorous middle aged woman, played by Libby Smyth, sitting alone in a bar in the old town. She accepts a drink, but no company. This night is different. As she looks back on her turbulent, bohemian life, she relives a personal loss which continues to haunt her. There are echoes of Beckett's Happy Days, Not I, Krapp’s Last Tape, First Love and others. And Belfast has its place, too. The two pieces together now form a double-sided drama entitled Both Sides, in which the stories interlock like a jigsaw, revealing two women who are deeply connected but cannot bring together their shared past or present.  

With welcome support from the Arts Council of Northern Ireland and from our sponsors John J Rice Solicitors and Lighthouse Communications, we were enabled to open Both Sides at our old stamping ground of the Dark Horse at the 2017 Cathedral Quarter Arts Festival. Two weeks later, Hannah brought Me Here, Me full circle when she performed it in a café venue in the heart of the theatre quarter for the Paris Fringe.  

We have been offered four fitting spaces for our tour - the Old Courthouse in Antrim, the Seamus Heaney HomePlace, the Duncairn Arts & Cultural Centre and Down County Museum in Downpatrick. In November, we will present a staged reading at the John O’Connor Writing School & Literary Arts Festival, linking in with a talk by Conor Carville about Patrick Magee, Beckett’s favourite actor. Whoever would have thought that all those years of aimless strolling, coffee drinking and people watching would have borne such unexpected fruit? In these troubling times, we offer Both Sides in recognition of the terrorist attacks which have struck Paris and Nice over the past couple of years and as a humble tribute to the unique vision of the writer who inspired the stories.

Both Sides tours venues across Northern Ireland in September and October, dates listed below:

6 September - Old Courthouse, Antrim  
7 September - Seamus Heaney HomePlace, Bellaghy 
8 September - Duncairn Centre for Culture & Arts, Belfast
9 September - Down County Museum, Downpatrick
4 November  -  John O’Connor Writing School & Literary Arts Festival, Armagh