Lyric Theatre Stage Stewart Parker's Pentecost
Jimmy Fay on the challenges of directing the classic play set during the Ulster Workers' Council Strike
The rehearsal room at the Lyric Theatre in Belfast currently resembles one of those junk shops from Bargain Hunt. Pieces of worn furniture fill the fourth floor space and gloriously stained stew pots sit on an old range.
It looks like a scene from bygone Belfast, and it is, as this is where director Jimmy Fay's crack cast of actors are rehearsing one of Northern Ireland's dramatic masterpieces, Pentecost.
Although Stewart Parker's last play, written the year before he died in 1987, was produced at the Lyric a few years ago, Fay – who took up his post as executive producer at the theatre in January 2014 – wanted to tackle it again for a number of reasons.
'Two years ago, I directed Mixed Marriage here, which was set in 1907-8 and dealt with the Belfast Dock Strike,' Fay recalls. 'I'd also done Owen McCafferty's Quietly, in which he recorded the legacy of the Troubles. So I had a kind of trilogy in mind, wanting to do something in between.
'It's 40 years now since the events of the play, the Ulster Workers' Council Strike, which is a significant time. In a decade of anniversaries – the Great War, the 1916 Uprising – it seemed serendipitous.'
As Dubliner Fay points out, audiences in Northern Ireland have long since grown tired of old Troubles tropes on stage, but Stewart Parker's drama is very different. Rich and textured, Pentecost is a play most definitely worth revisiting. 'It's tricky, great, fantastic, one of the best plays about Belfast ever written.'
Technically, Pentecost also reveals Parker's love of 1950s kitchen sink dramas. A stint teaching at Hamilton College in New York State provided Parker with an opportunity to rediscover expressionism and radical theatre, and this too is evident in Pentecost.
Ian Paisley's death last week has given the production new resonance, as the people of Northern Ireland recall Paisley's role in the 1974 strike and his bellowed, dramatic line 'Never, never, never, never!' in response to the notion of power-sharing. Yet Fay is adamant that Pentecost is not a history play.
'It's quite contemporary,' he asserts. 'Parker wrote it in 1986-7. With the benefit of hindsight, we can see it as a depressed era but there is hope. Stephen Rea (who acted Lenny with Field Day in the 1987 premiere) talks about the fact that he looked for hope in the play. And (the character of) Marian finds hope. She's a kind of private detective looking for it in the total grief.'
There is certainly a lot of loss and grief in Pentecost, yet the play isn't just an exercise in social realism. One of the key figures is Lily Matthews, a Protestant ghost who haunts her old house on what becomes the front line of the Ulster Workers' Council Strike. Marian takes over the house and tries to rebuild her life as she faces divorce from Lenny. From the start, the living and the dead communicate naturally, if not naturalistically.
So how will Fay deal with the spectral fifth character? 'That's the thing, is she real or in the mind? Lily walks in and out and at one stage droops through the wall which adds a frisson, but in the end Marian has to exorcise this house by confronting what she finds.'
Pentecost, then, is a play about personal power-sharing. It contains some humorous, and harrowing, glimpses into relationships, particularly between women. It is, in many ways, the women's play – they share the house which Marian restores, and where she discovers what she has in common with Lily: a lost child.
Within this axis and underlining the personal toll of political movements is Ruth. Marian's younger friend, and her policeman husband's punch bag, Ruth is someone who passionately maintains the goodness of her Protestant beliefs in spite of evidence to the contrary.
Roisin Gallagher – who describes herself as working class Catholic – admits to relishing the role. 'I think the play is fantastic from an acting point of view. It's complex, with loads of layers, but Ruth is a great part. It's a non-stop journey.'
As part of their rehearsal preparations, the mainly young cast enjoyed a seminar hosted by Queen's University academic Connal Parr, who gave them a sense of the period in which the play is set and the real panic of the time, as people feared the breakdown of law and order.
Gallagher adds that her mother was a nurse in the Royal Victoria Hospital in 1974. 'This happened to my parents. It's close, just one generation away,' she says.
Like her fellow actors, Gallagher believes that Parker's language feels contemporary. 'It's not period,' she argues. 'It's important. He doesn't use cliché and every word, phrase and punctuation point is there for a reason.'
In the play, Ruth ends up in bed with Peter, one of Pentecost's most complex characters. Will Irvine, a 30-year-old actor from Downpatrick, is enjoying teasing out this clever individual thought to be based on Parker himself.
'Peter is the hippy who hasn't let go and the only one who comes back to Belfast,' Irvine explains. 'He's tried the civil rights moment in America and has come back from Birmingham during the workers' strike looking for meaning in his life.
'There are many overlaps between his life and Stewart Parker's. Parker taught at Cornell in the 1960s and the speech where Peter talks about keeping the crowd from the black students during an occupation is based on a real incident.'
According to Fay, productions of great plays like Pentecost relate to their era but all have a resonant significance – which is perhaps evident from the BBC Northern Ireland television adaptation embedded above. 'Great productions hover,' says Fay. 'Stewart Parker said plays and ghosts have a lot in common, they lodge in the memory.'
The finale of Pentecost, which does contain a resolution, is powerful and loaded with religious symbolism. 'You can't avoid religion for long in Northern Ireland,' Fay laughs, 'and in the last scene, you identify more with the language and with Lenny's attitude towards God and man. You get right to the edge, to the conflict within yourself. It resonates as a human thing, which I find quite moving.'
Pentecost runs at the Lyric Theatre, Belfast until October 18.