INTERVIEW: Gary Mitchell

He's no Suicide Brunette, but intimidation won't stop this playwright writing

Gary Mitchell has a new play out. Suicide Brunette is an Underground Collective production that debuts on October 12 at the Old Red Lion in London. It has been four years since his last stage play – Remnants of Fear with Dubbeljoint Productions – and five since the playwright was forced from his home in Rathcoole by rogue paramilitaries.

‘They weren’t real terrorists,’ Mitchell snorts, sitting on the sofa in his family home. He had to be dragged away working on something upstairs and he hasn’t shaved, ‘I didn’t think there would be photographs’. You can hear the contemptuous quote marks hanging around his words as he speaks. ‘Real terrorists fly planes into buildings, real terrorists scare people in New York. Intimidating a playwright in Rathcoole? That’s not real terrorism, that’s just a couple of people.’

It must have seemed real enough to Mitchell and his family when they started getting death threats because of something that Mitchell had written. Or, rather, something that people assumed he had written. Mitchell doubts that any of the people who forced him to leave his home had even known what his plays were about, never mind having seen one.

‘People would see me on the news picking up an award in Dublin,’ Mitchell says, old frustration in his voice. ‘And as far as they were concerned if Irish Catholics were clapping me I must have done something for them. That meant it must have been against Rathcoole.’

Mitchell blames the pervasive inferiority complex of the Protestant working class. The odd way of thinking that meant you had to keep up appearances without thinking too much of yourself. Mitchell was a wee boy from Rathcoole: he wasn’t allowed into his mum’s parlour and he wasn’t allowed to be a writer.

‘We have this thing where we think middle class people and upper class people are better than us. They can write things, we can’t. We can work in factories. ‘ Mitchell leans forwards intently. ‘And if someone proves that it is possible to go to Rathcoole Secondary – the school you got expelled into - and become a famous writer then they have to pull him down. Because they said, “you’re from Rathcoole, you can’t” and stopped their kids from becoming a writer or wanting to be famous.’

It is one reason that Mitchell thought it was so important to keep writing after he was forced out of the estate. To prove that even someone from Rathcoole had something to say and the right to say it. Even if Mitchell is increasingly afraid that no-one in Northern Ireland wants to listen. He thinks that there is no support for any artist who wants to look at the Protestant community in a serious way.

‘All they want are plays that are lovely about lovely people who love each other,’ Mitchell says sarcastically. ‘People say "you have to move on" but I’m still talking about my community, about my experiences.’

That frustration is something he has in common with Christopher Hanvey, who founded the Underground Collective and wrote the monologue running with Suicide Brunette. Mitchell describes Hanvey as the next generation, following in Mitchell’s footsteps 15 years later and finding the same problems.

They met because Hanvey admired the work Mitchell was doing. ‘Not necessarily what I was doing,’ Mitchell corrects himself, ‘but the fact I was writing about the Protestant community and he thought no-one was doing that.’

Suicide Brunette takes that sense of cultural disenfranchisement and puts it on stage. The play is a monologue from the Suicide Brunette of the title, a drunk woman in her living room talking to a web-cam. It’s a neat way around the artifice of a monologue and preserves the fourth wall of the production. She has an excuse to be sitting somewhere alone, talking to herself.

‘It’s about womanhood, motherhood, neighbourhood and wifehood – if that’s a word,’ Mitchell explains. ‘It’s about neighbourhood watch and suicide watch and then it’s just about suicide.’

The Suicide Brunette is a white straight Protestant whose privilege conversely makes her feel inferior to people who aren’t those things. She feels that it isn’t acceptable to be who she is, and yet she can’t be anything else.

Mitchell could be letting himself in for a lot of criticism – the tears of the privileged majority rarely elicit much sympathy – but to him it isn’t about being bigoted or sectarian. ‘She wants to say “I don’t hate anyone, but am I bigoted because I love me?”’

Mitchell could be asking the question himself. Is he so wrong for wanting to write about the Protestant community that he knows, warts and all? The answer doesn’t matter. He isn’t going to stop writing.

‘Gary’s a genius,’ his wife and agent says firmly. ‘If he doesn’t get commissions then we’ll live in a tent, but we aren’t going anywhere.’

Mitchell flushes at being called a genius and mutters that he’d ‘like to meet that Gary Mitchell’. He’s not escaped the inferiority complex completely yet.

Tammy Moore

Suicide Brunette can be seen at the Old Red Lion Theatre in London from October 12 - 30.