Meeting at Menin Gate
Martin Lynch discusses his changing technique and 'intensely personal' new play, the third and final part of the Ulster Trilogy
The Menin Gate stands over the road into the Ypres Salient in Belgium, across which marched the hundreds of thousands of British, Irish and Commonwealth soldiers who fought in many of the most brutal and ferocious battles of the First World War – the four battles of Ypres and one now named Paschendale.
From the 300,000 who died in that area, 90,000 were pronounced missing in action, and therefore have no individual graves. These are the men memorialised at the Menin Gate – and also in Siegfried Sassoon's poignant poem, 'On the Passing of the Menin Gate':
‘Who will remember, passing through this Gate,
The unheroic dead who fed the guns?
Who shall absolve the foulness of their fate,—
Those doomed, conscripted, unvictorious ones?’
Poetically, at 8pm every evening, a bugler from the local Ypres Fire Brigade plays the last post for all those graveless soldiers whose bodies are still being discovered in the area. This ceremony has been taking place since 1928. Menin Gate is by anyone's estimation organised remembrance on a grand, imperial scale.
Whilst countries and nations can overtly remember, it is in the hearts and minds of individuals where real memory exists. Belfast playwright Martin Lynch sets his latest play, Meeting at Menin Gate, against the backdrop of the 1914 – 18 killing fields, but tells a modern story that is informed by personal darkness – his own as well as his character's.
After the previous two plays in Green Shoot Productions Ulster Trilogy – Brothers in Arms by Sam Millar and Paisley and Me by Ron Hutchinson – Green Shoot founder Lynch himself rounds out the trio of plays with an intensely personal take on remembrance, the past and what is forgotten and what is not.
Based on a true scenario – which Lynch learned about on a trip to the Flanders Fields with a group of victims and ex-combatants – the play explores the world left behind by the Troubles and the grey, morally-uncertain times that we live in, when one community’s freedom fighter is another's terrorist, and the mid-2000s buzz term ‘conflict resolution’ seems as inept and redundant as ‘New Labour’.
Opening in The MAC in Belfast on September 4, Meeting at Menin Gate sees a policeman’s daughter and an ex-IRA man open a bottle of wine in a hotel bedroom and get to chatting. Reasonable enough, you might think, until the play begins to etch out the connections between the pair, which bring the past coughing and spluttering like an angry child into the light. The decisions each take at that point drive the play onwards.
Meeting at Menin Gate is an intensely personal play, which also draws on Lynch's past. As a young man Lynch, in his own words, ‘crossed the line’ and bore at least a collective responsibility for acts of violence that happened in the 1970s, something that he describes as causing a ‘stain on my soul’ to this day.
Looking back at the decisions and pressures that caused such behaviour, Lynch sees this play as a form of redemption. The male character, Terry, speaks of the psychological effect that his actions had on his life, while Liz is the indirect victim of these actions. Lynch is keen for us to realise that ‘these things did happen, they can’t be escaped. You’re still alive and you have to go on.’
Meeting at Menin Gate is not a directly political play. Rather the writer who made his name with plays like Dockers and The Interrogation of Ambrose Fogarty, which took overt political stances in the class struggle, sees his latest work as more about his relationship with the past than any wider treatise on society. ‘Some people can move on very easily, and refuse to talk about what happened. I was surprised how easy it was for me to slip into exploring those areas that others wish to leave alone.’
Apart from the obvious symbolism connecting Belgium with Belfast – and war torn Europe with war torn Northern Ireland – the setting for the play is an interesting one. For Lynch, it is not only a neutral space for his characters – away from the landmarks and the memories that Belfast throws up – but also a place that recalls Northern Ireland's connection with the first global struggle for democracy and peace.
‘The pattern in all our families was that the men returning from the war never talked about it, because the First World War was the worst, most horrific war in human existence,' Lynch explains. 'People tied to the floor, and made to witness years of hell... And they don’t want to talk about, because it triggers so much pain.
'The reason it’s the backdrop to the play is because of Belfast’s relationship with the war, both Protestant and Catholic. These men returned having seen violence on such a major scale, and contrasting that with the micro, street-to-street scale of violence here. Also putting Belfast people in a new setting like Belgium allows the straightjacket of local things to be released. So it’s the legacy of violence for the First World War, and the legacy we’re dealing with now.’
Making his name as a playwright who dealt with social issues – such as in the wildly underrated Castles in the Air of 1983 – Lynch is still keen to see class as an important element in modern life. ‘Maybe class matters less than 200 or even 100 years ago, but there is too much factual evidence around that tells us that class still matters significantly,' he adds. 'Right down to what we eat, where we eat, expectancy of life and so on.
'But in terms of who I am as a playwright, I don’t think there’s too much that I write that doesn’t have some dimension of class consciousness behind it. Every play I write is about working class characters – as are Marie Jones’s – but few people notice it in the same way as they did in the 1970s and 80s. That’s a big change. I remember, for example, in the Lyric Theatre actors who were raised in Belfast couldn’t get their voices around the dialect. Nowadays, west Belfast is pouring actors out like a car factory.’
Lynch's preoccupations when it comes to subject matter may not have changed too much over the years – even after the huge popular success of The History of the Troubles (Accordin' to My Da) made Martin Lynch a household name across Northern Ireland on both sides of 'the divide'. His technique, though, has evolved.
'I just write plays in a different way than I did in the Dockers or Castles in the Air days. When I set out to write those plays I set out to deal specifically with the issue in hand, be it sectarianism or housing or whatever. Now I first and foremost write about people and the journeys they take. That’s a byproduct of growing older as a writer. Nowadays I hear a story about a person and take it from there. I don’t want to exclude politics, but it’s the people who come first.’
His audiences may have changed, too. There is no doubting that the majority remain working class, but touring productions routinely put bums on seats across the country – making Lynch a Belfast playwright who appeals to theatregoers outside of the capital – and anyone who has attended one of his plays outside of the community halls that Lynch the producer loves so much will note that people of all backgrounds appreciate his humour and pathos.
So after all this time, does Lynch still write for the same people as when he began? 'At times,' he answers, before stopping to consider just who he really writes for. 'I am trying to make the theatre important to people, to connect with audiences,' he concludes.
'If I need to write more comedy to connect with people from Ballymurphy or wherever, then I’ll do it, because that’s what gives me a buzz. I don’t write for Los Angeles, I write for Belfast, trying to create plays to get people to connect with the theatre. Meeting at Menin Gate is powerful and personal, and I hope it does that job.’
Meeting at Menin Gate runs in The MAC, Belfast from September 4 – 21, before touring Northern Ireland.