Innovative Tinderbox production depicting Belfast in 2068

Click Play Audio for a podcast interview with Mick Duke, artistic director of Tinderbox Theatre Company, and leading lady Maggie Cronin.

What do you get if you set four playwrights to work on one play? It might sound like a thespian-inspired one-liner, but that’s just what Tinderbox has done with its new sci-fi show Bruised.

Add a director, a musician, a dramaturge and even a scientist to the mix, and you would expect to have discovered the perfect formula for off-stage drama, but Mick Duke is happy to report that it hasn’t descended into chaos. ‘At least not yet. Touch wood!’ he laughs and slaps the table in the anteroom of the South Bank Playhouse, in south Belfast, where rehearsals for Bruised have been taking place.

How can four people write one play? As Duke explains, it has been a lengthy, collaborative process. The writers, Maria Connolly, Stacey Gregg, Rosemary Jenkinson and Maria McManus, ‘first began to work together about a year ago’.

‘We did a couple of development days in Conway Mill to start with and then worked together for a week last December looking specifically at the play’s themes and how they would be addressed.

‘Then the writers went away and wrote material separately and since the turn of the year we’ve been bringing them together at times but also sending scripts around between them. Gradually we’ve woven the whole thing together into a show.’

As Duke sees it, the involvement of four separate and distinct voices brings the play ‘depth and scope’ – though he does admit the experiment was something of a leap into the unknown. ‘We didn’t know how it was all going to work until the writers sat down and worked together,’ he candidly remarks.

Actress Maggie Cronin, who plays the character of Nora Ryan in Bruised, is delighted with the understanding that has developed among the writers and between the writers and the cast - ‘so far we have all been working really well together’.

Cronin credits the dramaturge – a specialist in the adaptation of scripts to the stage – with ensuring the smooth running of such a complex production. ‘They are an important conduit between writer and director,’ she says and ‘an interesting development for Northern Irish theatre, helping to push writing forward to the centre stage of theatre’.

Not content with pushing the boundaries in terms of script writing and dramaturgy, Bruised also features an original score that has been composed by Ruby Colley during the rehearsal phase, and which will be played live during the performance.

So what did all these writers actually produce? Bruised is a science fiction story with a plot that reads like the racy blurb on a Philip K Dick dust jacket.

It is Belfast in 2068, the eve of the centenary of the start of the Troubles and much has changed in the preceding hundred years. Scientific progress has changed how humans live and die, and scientists have discovered how to shape and control what people remember. It is against this chilling backdrop that the central characters’ lives and dilemmas are played out.

Both Cronin and Duke agree that the play’s futuristic backdrop allows it to effectively comment on contemporary society. ‘We were chiefly interested in using the future as a way of looking at now and used a future setting to see how we would argue beyond the grave,’ Duke explains.

The idea of cellular memory, that people who have transplants may inherit some of the experiences and personality traits of the organ donor, is used in the play to explore how old issues and grievances can remain unresolved despite the passage of time.

Enter the scientist. ‘We were interested in how scientists were looking at how memory actually exists in us,’ Duke says, and ‘we spoke to researchers in this field’.

Bruised depicts a bleak, future Belfast, but there are also positive messages to be found in the play. ‘It is about moving on from a difficult past … when we can stop looking back and start looking forward,’ adds Duke.

On paper, it has all the makings of exciting, innovative theatre, but it will be up to Belfast audiences to judge for themselves whether Bruised's eclectic collaboration manages to leave a lasting mark.

Bruised runs in Belfast's Old Museum Arts Centre from September 30 to October 11. Click here for more details.

Peter Geoghegan