Belfast Festival: Paisley & Me
After spending 30 years in LA as a successful screenwriter, Ron Hutchinson returns to home soil to explore the life of Baron Bannside
'Martin bloody Lynch!' Ron Hutchinson's tongue is wedged firmly in his cheek as he spells the answer out laconically.
The question was simple. How, after 30 years spent living in Los Angeles developing a career as a highly respected screenwriter, did Islandmagee-born Hutchinson suddenly find himself writing about his home patch again? And, in particular, about one of its most notoriously controversial figures?
It was fellow playwright Martin Lynch who did the necessary prompting, cajoling Hutchinson into considering a dramatic treatment of the life of Baron Bannside, the politician formerly known as the Reverend Ian Paisley: firebrand preacher, ex-First Minister of Northern Ireland, and fierce defender of fundamentalist unionism.
On reflection, Hutchinson realised that the subject did, in fact, harbour elements of unfinished family business. 'I didn't intend to ever set pen to paper about Northern Ireland in my life again,' he explains. 'I thought I'd done it, said it, and that was that. But my parents were married 60 years and the one thing they ever argued about was Paisley.
'My dad was from the country, near Ballynahinch, and he grew up on a farm. My mother grew up just off the Woodstock Road in Belfast. They seemed to contain in them many contradictions about being a Northern Irish Protestant, between town and country. And I was always puzzled about what niggled them about Paisley, whether I should even care, and why that was the one thing they always argued about.'
So while unanswered questions about the influence of 'The Big Man' on his own childhood and upbringing were a useful starting-point for Hutchinson, he is adamant that Paisley & Me is not a play in which sides are taken, or where he nails his own political colours boldly to the masthead.
'If this is to be a piece of art,' says Hutchinson, 'as opposed to a piece of reportage, it needs a metaphor, it needs to be about something other than Paisley. Otherwise why wouldn't I just hand out a leaflet at the door, saying "This is my opinion of the man, read it and go home"?'
Hutchinson is acutely aware of the potential pitfalls involved in writing about an individual who is still living, especially when he is still living in the same part of the world as the audiences who will view the finished product.
'The process of writing about a living historical figure comes fraught with selection,' Hutchinson admits. 'So I thought maybe the issue between my parents is the filter that I need to select the things from a public life, to make this an exploration of a private thing. And I think plays always work well when an audience is eavesdropping on somebody trying to figure something out.'
And what exactly is Hutchinson trying to 'figure out' in his examination of episodes from one of the most extraordinary and unpredictable political lives of the past century? What is Paisley & Me actually about?
Hutchinson pauses before answering, measuring his words precisely. 'I think this play is as much as anything else about being God-haunted,' he says. 'I don't think it's just about sectarian politics, I don't think it's just about my parents' collisions over Paisley.
'I realised when I watched the play at rehearsals, and the incredible job everybody is doing on it, that it's also picking at another scab, of an obsession with something bigger than us, with the religious impulse. And I think it's that God-hauntedness of Paisley that I'm concerned with in the end.'
The central role in Paisley & Me will be taken by the vastly experienced Northern Irish actor Dan Gordon (pictured above). Hutchinson is anxious that Gordon should not feel himself encumbered by attempting to impersonate the real Reverend Paisley too closely, in terms of how he speaks, looks or moves as an onstage character.
'He doesn't have to be anything but the essence of Paisley,' insists Hutchinson. 'I had a couple of goes at showing Paisley on stage at 20, 30, 40-years of age, but it doesn't work. So this is not a conventional, straightforward, naturalistic piece, it's very presentational. We hope we've got the essence of the man at the age that Dan is.'
To get that essence, Hutchinson has delved deeply into the welter of historical information that is available on Paisley, documenting his teemingly eventful life in meticulous detail. 'I got a pile of stuff!' he says. 'I think you have to rummage around, and talk to people, and read the books. But in the end this is not a drama-documentary, you have to take a position. I think writers often hide behind their research and don't take a position.'
One thing which Hutchinson does know for certain is that the sequence of events that led Paisley to eventually share government with those he had spent decades excoriating as the bitterest of political enemies, is a moment of remarkable historical significance, and one that inevitably figures prominently in the play.
'This is something that any dramatist worth his union card would go straight to,' observes Hutchinson. 'The problem, of course, once you look at it, is that this must have been an internal decision, and they are very hard to dramatise, because at some point Paisley's got to go into his soul, and figure can he pull off this thing.
'Paisley & Me is very much about that, what that must have felt like, more than what the explanation was. It feels that part of the God-hauntedness of the play is about that moment of conversion thing, when the inexplicable happens, all the work fades away, and grace descends.
'The only way that I could approach this was to make it highly personal. I hope there is enough of interest, and passion, and love, and longing in my attempt to try and resolve that one thing my parents argued about, to make a strong enough, and hopefully now and again funny enough night in the theatre.'