The story of one Liverpool fan's incredible experience of the 2005 Champions League final in Istanbul comes to the Belfast Festival
There’s a lot for football fans at this year’s Belfast Festival at Queen’s.
As well as an evening with Belfast-born Manchester United and Everton legend Norman Whiteside, and a lecture from Phil Scraton, author of Hillsborough: The Truth, the festival will stage the Northern Ireland premiere of a footie-inspired play that has been receiving rave reviews throughout the past year.
Kicking off a two-night run in the Lyric Theatre on October 24, Beating Berlusconi is a punchy piece of populist theatre based on the barely believable true story of a Liverpool FC fan, Mark Radley (pictured above, centre), and his remarkable experience of the 2005 Champions League final in which Liverpool – under former coach Rafa Benitez – came up against a very strong AC Milan side at the Atatürk Olympic Stadium in Instanbul.
Somehow, as Liverpool found themselves 3 nil down by half-time after a clinical AC Milan onslaught, Radley managed to blag his way into the AC Milan directors’ box, where he helped himself to free champagne and salmon.
Then, when Liverpool heroically fought back to equalise in the second half, led by their talismatic captain Steven Gerard – ensuring that the game would go to penalties – Radley almost had a fight with an increasingly irritated Silvio Berlusconi, the former Italian prime minister, mutli-millionaire media mogul and owner of the Italian footballing giants.
In the end Liverpool achieved the unachievable and came back from a three goal deficit to win their third European Cup on penalties. The Miracle of Istanbul was written into football history, and one working class man from Liverpool had watched the whole thing unfurl from on high. Needless to say, Berlusconi was not amused.
Jobbing thesp Paul Duckworth (pictured below) plays 40 roles in the play, and was cast despite his team allegiances lying elsewhere. ‘The director, Matt Rutter, recommended me, even though he knew I was an Evertonian,’ Duckworth laughs.
The erstwhile Brookside and Backbeat actor wasn’t aware of Radley’s story when he signed up, but he has since made the project his own. ‘It’s certainly a challenge,’ he admits, noting the large number of characters, ‘but I feel I know them all quite well now.'
Beating Berlusconi was penned by producer John Graham Davies, and focuses not just on Radley's Champions League experience but also on 40 years of British sporting and political history, revisiting key events over the time period. Nostalgic for some audience members, certainly, but Duckworth remains modest.
‘The attacks on the city [Liverpool] during the 1980s were really borne by my dad’s generation,’ he surmises, ‘and the central character reminds me of him in some respects. We do often have older audience members say that they feel they have been watching a newsreel of their lives.’
Radley has been to see the play several times, according to Duckworth, and the pair have appeared at Q&As together. Berlusconi, however, hasn’t been in touch.
‘He may know about it by now, as the script has been published in Italy and there have been reviews in a lot of the big papers, including La Gazzetta dello Sport,’ Duckworth reckons. ‘But I don’t think he’d see the funny side. Like a lot of politicians, he doesn’t like to laugh at himself.’
Since premiering in 2011, Beating Berlusconi has been expectedly popular on home turf, but it has done well around the country, too.
‘It turns out it has gone down really well wherever we’ve been,’ says Duckworth, ‘particularly in football towns such as Newcastle and Manchester. But it’s gone down well in remote places too, and a lot of the feedback has been from non-football fans, who say they like it because of its other themes.’
Indeed, despite the farcical premise, Beating Berlusconi isn’t just a comedy, and it doesn’t seem to be solely for football nuts either – or just men. ‘We get lots of feedback from women,’ Duckworth reveals, ‘often starting with a variant of, “I don’t like football, but…”’
Politically charged and tackling issues including self-belief, pride, class, solidarity and the father-son relationship, if the play has an overriding theme, it is, according to Duckworth, ‘the little guy taking on something bigger than himself’, something everyone can surely relate to.
The actor points to a write-up from what he describes as ‘a real footiephobic reviewer’, who praised Beating Berlusconi as ‘a story about obsession, about love, about working class pride, a paean to a way of life now long lost, a way of life built on community’. If it sounds like a universal story, it’s unsurprising to learn there has been a Norwegian adaptation.
‘John, the writer, went over to see it, and raved about it, and I’ve seen a couple of short clips which look brilliant,’ comments Duckworth. ‘But it was weird hearing the characters that I’ve lived with for three years being pronounced in a strong Scandinavian accent.’ Duckworth also divulges that there looks like being an Italian production (presumably without Mr Berlusconi’s participation).
Inevitably, a film version is now also rumoured to be in the works. Duckworth is positive the project will get the green light, though he would be reluctant to step aside if Hollywood gets involved. ‘If they didn’t cast me I’d put out a contract,’ he chuckles. ‘But if pushed, I’d be happy if they got George Clooney. He’s a great comic actor, even if he hasn’t got my looks.’
Beating Berlusconi is at the Lyric Theatre, Belfast, on October 24 and 25 as part of the Belfast Festival at Queen's..