Adrian Dunbar Brings Carthage to Derry

The actor turned director tackles Frank McGuinness's play about 'gender, politics' and Bloody Sunday

The first Bloody Sunday was in 1887, a London demonstration against the oppression of the Irish, and the last was in Lithuania in 1991. In Northern Ireland, however, it will always mean the 1972 murders of 13 unarmed protesters in Derry~Londonderry.

40 years on and the Millennium Forum has revived a touring production of Frank McGuinness’s Carthaginians. Directed by actor Adrian Dunbar, Carthaginians is one of the ‘few enduring plays to emerge about the Troubles’.

‘It’s a very interesting play,’ Dunbar, fresh out of a day’s rehearsals, says thoughtfully. ‘It’s set 10 years after Bloody Sunday and is about the indirect impact on people who weren’t involved, but were there. It left scars on them too. It affected their lives.’

Despite its political underpinnings, Carthaginians is, at its heart, a deconstructed passion play. Six scarred characters are gathered by the grave. Both Mary figures are there – the mourning mother and the Amsterdam hooker – and Judas in the form of an informer, strangled into muteness by his guilt. Except the play starts with condemnation, not celebration.

Paul, who staves off madness by building pyramids of junk, blames St Malachy for the state of the city. 'If I find St Malachy hiding in this city, I’ll kill him, I’ll kill him, I’ll knock his teeth down his throat.’ In the same vein Hark, a member of the IRA and an ex-prisoner, reflects on the only future he sees for the city, 'where Catholics shall stand with Catholics, Protestants with Protestants'.

It is a bleak world they inhabit, symbolised by the graveyard they have taken up residence in. Yet McGuinness skillfully shows that their view of Derry~Londonderry isn't the only one.

‘McGuinness knew that there was a need to tell the truth before people could move on,’ Dunbar explains. ‘It is really a very forgiving play, full of humanity and humour. It forgives everyone in the end. We hope our production can do the same, and help with closure.’

The resonance of the play for the people of Derry~Londonderry is obvious. Dunbar, however, is confident that Carthaginians has a wider appeal.

‘It's a play of great significance, but it can stand alone as well as being tied to Bloody Sunday,' he comments. 'The last time the play toured in the UK, it was the gender politics element that people responded to and wanted to talk about. Not Bloody Sunday.’

The characters in Carthaginians do debate gender as well as religion and politics. Most significantly in the form of Dido, the gay playwright who brings provisions and news to the six people during their vigil.

Dido’s sexuality plays a subversive role in the play, both appealing to and aggravating the other characters. Hark subjects him to a homophobic attack, demanding to know ‘Is the United Ireland between your legs?’ Yet, at the same time, his play within a play, Burning Balaclava, gives Seph the informer his voice back.

At the end of the play Dido says that it is ‘time to love [Derry] and to leave it’. It is not the city that he means, but the characters' ideas of it as a City of the Dead, as much a graveyard as the one they wait in. 

Forty years on from Bloody Sunday, and with the 2013 City of Culture on the horizon, Dido’s quote is still true: ‘How’s Derry? Surviving, surviving. Carthage has not been destroyed.’

‘No matter how many years pass, Carthaginians is still current,’ Dunbar concludes. ‘Hop on a bus and come see it.’

Carthaginians runs at the Millennium Forum in Derry~Londonderry from February 22 - 25 before going on tour. To find out where else to see it, check out CultureNorthernIreland's What's On Guide.