Field Day Return - Watch Video Featuring Founder Stephen Rea

Mark Phelan of Queen's University welcomes the return of the influential theatre company as it stages two new works in Derry~Londonderry

Founded in 1980 by actor Stephen Rea and playwright Brian Friel, specifically to stage the latter’s Translations, Field Day Theatre Company, in little more than a decade, produced a dozen plays by some of Ireland’s most prominent poets, playwrights and critics, which established the company as the most influential intellectual and cultural force on the island of Ireland.

Their board of directors included Seamus Heaney, Tom Paulin, Seamus Deane, Thomas Kilroy and David Hammond, and the company produced work by equally heavyweight figures: Stewart Parker, Terry Eagleton, Derek Mahon and Friel. The dramatis personae of Field Day comprised established and eminent men-of-letters; however, it was a cast, or a club, that was exclusively male. 

And so it is a real pleasure to see that for Field Day’s return to the public stage, after almost two decades, the company has decided to stage its first female playwright, Clare Dwyer Hogg, whose play, Farewell, is to be mounted as part of a double bill, along with David Ireland’s Half Glass of Water, of new work by emerging, rather than established, Irish playwrights.

Given the huge expectation and anticipation surrounding the return of Field Day, the fact that they have opted to (re)open with new work by new writers in Derry~Londonderry's Playhouse is a courageous decision, all the more so when the programming of festivals, organization and institutions is so often enervated by commercial pressures and priorities.

The return of Field Day is, of course, conjured and choreographed by Derry’s City of Culture celebrations, but it seems a singularly opportune and apposite time for the company to return to the city and to the North’s public scene.

Not only because Field Day was founded in Derry or because its production of Translations in the Guildhall in 1980 is one of the most iconic of 20th century Irish theatre, but because Field Day’s work was underpinned by its political commitment to the city, given its original pledge to premiere its plays in Derry, and to deliberately bypass Belfast, Dublin and London: a decision that dovetails nicely with the policy and political energy underpinning Derry’s City of Culture programme.

Although Field Day is somewhat synonymous with Derry, it has had a colossal influence on Ireland’s cultural and intellectual life as a whole, and its impact was not solely exerted through the plays they performed, but by its extensive series of politically charged programmes, pamphlets and publications that were produced in tandem with their theatrical productions.

Many of these were written 'by intellectuals for intellectuals', as Richard Kearney noted, but they did explicitly engage with the idea(l) that artists and public intellectuals had an obligation to critique the causes and conditions that allowed the Troubles to continue for so long in the North.

They sought to explore the 'fifth province of the imagination' in their work; a utopian ideal whereby their output might create a cultural space that could transcend tribal and territorial boundaries to unite the citizens of the North. They achieved it too, if only ephemerally, in many of their memorable performances of some of the greatest plays to be produced in the past half century: Translations, Double Cross and Pentecost, to name but a few.

However, outside of the theatre, Field Day’s work, rather ironically, precipitated intense conflict, albeit in a different theatre of operations as critics clashed and 'canon-balls' flew between academics and artists.

Many rejected and resented the politics (and personalities) of Field Day and their efforts to import postcolonial theory into their analysis of Northern Ireland and our ongoing conflict: a reaction that produced a further explosion of pamphlets, articles and essays which have all helped to collectively transform the critical landscape of cultural politics in the decades since these convulsive and impassioned debates first erupted.

Field Day’s interrogation of the myths and stereotypes they regarded as perpetuating the conflict in the North were conducted both off and onstage.

It was the activities of the former, however, that soon outstripped the latter, so that whilst Field Day the theatre company gradually wound down its operations, Field Day publications progressed to produce a massive five volume series of Irish writing and also continues to produce a diverse series of essays and monographs, as well as a journal, on Irish culture, history and literature.

Significantly, the latter two volumes of Irish Writing were published at a later date and concentrated exclusively on women’s writing following the furore over the absence of women in the first three volumes, all of which amplifies the significance of Claire Dwyer Hogg’s inclusion for Field Day’s new programme of work, as she is the first female playwright the company has ever produced, and though her debut play with Field Day is entitled Farewell, it feels more like a welcome, and an important stage entrance.

Farewell and Half Glass of Water run in the Playhouse Theatre in Derry~Londonderry from December 3 - 8, 2012.