The End of the Year As We Know It

Lee Henry meets Damian Gorman ahead of his new play's premiere

Born in the picturesque seaside town of Newcastle, Co Down in 1961, Damian Gorman won the Stewart Parker Award for his first play, All Being Well, and has since gone on to write for radio and television, as well as for the stage, picking up four Peacock Ulster Theatre awards along the way.

Also an award winning filmmaker – his documentary United brought home Northern Ireland’s first ever BAFTA award – Gorman has written with community groups, set up his own magazine, and in 1996 became the founding director of An Cann (The Tree), an arts charity aimed at documenting the personal stories of people involved in the Troubles.

In 1998 Gorman was awarded an MBE for his ‘Services to the Arts’, and his latest play, written for the Lyric Theatre, is called 1974 – The End Of The Year Show.

Set in an alcohol treatment unit in that bizarrely abject hinterland between Christmas Day and New Year's Eve, 1974 – The End Of The Year Show is one of Damian Gorman’s most personal plays to date.

Partly inspired by the plight of his late brother Brendan – himself an alcoholic – 1974 presents Northern Ireland as it was during the height of the Troubles, when tank tops were a must, Mohammad Ali came off the ropes to make sporting history in Zaire, and four Northern Irish civilians died on average every month.

CultureNorthernIreland met up with Gorman in the Lyric on the day of his play's final preview: a nervous time for any playwright.

‘It’s a funny thing,’ Gorman said. ‘Before I started working in the theatre professionally I used to think that you arrive with this thing, this play, and it’s as if your hands are full of water. Then you hand it over to somebody else and some dribbles away. They hand it over again, and inevitably you lose some more. So by the time you present it to the public, you’ve got half of what you had in the beginning. But that image isn’t true.

‘I used to sit in plays of my own curled round with tension about the delivery of scenes and so on. But good actors like these, good directors like Carol Moore add to it and they don’t take anything away. So in that sense I have no concern, because it couldn’t be in better hands.

‘We’re talking about a play which is deeply, deeply personal to me. Of course I have ambitions for it; I want something special to happen each night. But at the end of the day, it’s just a play. If the set falls down, you pick it up again. So yes, I do get nervous, but I have a bit more perspective than I would have had.’

1974 is a play about alcoholism and masculinity in the North, exploring the faults and fears of four inpatients half way through a three-week stint, stuck in a limbo as terrifying as it is monotonous, and faced with the uncertain prospect of another year on the fringes of a society torn apart by sectarianism.

Gorman came up with the idea for the play in early 2004, drawing on his own experiences with alcoholism and the memories he had of that most remarkable of years. Soon after he met up with his brother Brendan – who had himself spent time in an alcohol treatment unit over the Christmas period 1984, and who would tragically die before a first draft was completed - and they began building on the idea.

‘We met in a café on Fountain Street and talked for God knows how long. We just sat there and I asked him questions. He had spent time in Downpatrick over Christmas. So he got enthused, and through his instruction, his injunction was to try and put a bit of craic into it, a bit of banter. Which I would have tried to do anyway, but it wouldn’t have been as good.

‘My brother made a big contribution to the play. Yes, he was an alcoholic, but that wasn’t the only thing. He had insights; he had a passion about things. He read a lot and he was interested in cultural artefacts: books and plays and records.

‘After Brendan’s death, I experienced an odd stasis,’ Gorman explained. ‘I couldn’t pick the play up again, but I couldn’t put it down either. As the Americans say, the journey of writing it was difficult, yet I had a determination to put something in front of people. I probably wouldn’t have finished it at all had I not wanted to dedicate it to Brendan and to acknowledge his input.’

The year 1974 saw the collapse of the Sunningdale power-sharing executive in May and came to an end in the grip of an anxious ceasefire. The play also deals with domestic violence, homosexuality and the notion of otherness. But does its author think that the society in which it is set has learnt from its mistakes?

‘There is the question in this play of someone coming from the outside and how they are treated. I don’t know that we’ll be any better at that now. If you listen to the news and hear about the treatment of nurses from Portugal and migrant workers from Eastern Europe, it’s clear that we’re not, actually. I think that question is still relevant.

‘Obviously things have changed,’ he said. ‘There was a non-combatant killed every other day over the course of that year, on average. The play is set at a time when there was a very uneasy ceasefire, but a ceasefire none-the-less. And now, in the main, the guns are silent. There is an absence of murder, but I still think it’s uneasy. So you tell me how much things have changed.’