Planet Belfast at The MAC
Rosemary Jenkinson captures the zeitgeist with a timely new play about foodstuff. 'They could be giving you poison, as long as they make money
Horsemeat. It’s not what I’ve come to talk to Rosemary Jenkinson about, but the issue of unconventional, decidedly non-Nigella ingredients in bologneses and lasagnes gallops swiftly onto the menu as we discuss Planet Belfast, Jenkinson’s latest dramatic offering. ‘Ah yeah, I loved that!’ she laughs.
Not, I hasten to clarify, because Jenkinson in any way condones the criminal adulteration of consumer food products. She’s simply tickled by the timing. Planet Belfast opens at The MAC on February 19, and the horsemeat scandal currently attracting shock-jock treatment in the media perfectly adumbrates the key issues arising from Jenkinson’s new play, which places the emotive question of genetically modified foodstuffs at its centre.
We are what we eat, they say, and Jenkinson is passionate on the subject. ‘We’re so obsessed as a society about food nowadays,’ she comments, ‘what we put into our bodies. And yet of course we’re doing dangerous things at the same time.
‘You don’t know what is in your food, and big multi-national companies don’t care, basically. That is the message of the play. The fact that big companies don’t give a damn what they’re giving you. They could be giving you poison, as long as they make money.’
In writing Planet Belfast, Jenkinson was keen to steer away from the more parochial concerns she feels too often pre-occupy Irish dramatists. ‘You get tired of Irish plays!’ she says. ‘All the great Irish playwrights like Conor McPherson, Enda Walsh, I mean there’s nothing political ever, it can be just so insular looking, little family things. I just wanted to do something big about the environment.’
Insularity is a major preoccupation of Jenkinson’s. It was there thematically in White Star of the North, her wrangled family drama staged at the Lyric Theatre as part of last year’s Titanic celebrations.
And it surfaced in real life, when Basra Boy, her recent, stunning anatomisation of contemporary working-class Protestant culture, drew vociferous opprobium from sections of the Loyalist community it sought so empathetically to illuminate.
‘We [here in Northern Ireland] have no ability to move on from the past,’ says Jenkinson bluntly. ‘We can’t look at the big issues. I even think that’s one of the reasons why you find the plays here, the theatre, more conservative in its ideas, because we are so inward-looking and obsessed by ourselves, and obsessed by our history. Obviously we are, because it’s just constantly in the papers, what happened 30 years ago, every day. We’re bombarded with images of the past.’
Planet Belfast is Jenkinson’s attempt to break that inward-looking habit, by focusing on more global issues. It is, however, far from being a piece of dry, politico-scientific propaganda: woven into it is the very human story of a married couple, whose relationship is seriously destablised by a figure from the past returning to blight the present.
‘I don’t think you can do a play about issues unless you have a really strong personal narrative in it,’ remarks Jenkinson. ‘Otherwise you might as well just write a journalist’s article,’ she adds mischievously, causing me to cower momentarily on the sofa.
That personal narrative was, for Jenkinson, there from the start of the Planet Belfast project, not grafted in as an afterthought later. ‘So there are two strands to it, because I always like complex plays. The more contradictions and opposites in people’s characters, the more powerful.
‘The two strands are tightly interlocked,’ she adds. ‘It’s completely organic. I think it all comes naturally. And then I always love the thing about the stranger coming in to upset the status quo. Those are my favourite plays, when something unexpected’s coming, the rogue ingredient.’
Planet Belfast marks for Jenkinson a deliberate turning-away from the examination of her own Protestant heritage, towards broader, more international issues. ‘You get really labelled here,’ she says ruefully. ‘I get labelled as a woman playwright, which really annoys me.’
The label of ‘Protestant playwright’ is one which Jenkinson finds more comfortable. ‘I think I’m quite proud of that, I think I actually like that. Although I do think I’m kind of also about human beings, not just Protestant human beings. I write about Catholics as well!’
Jenkinson does, however, emphasise that her decision to closely scrutinise the Northern Irish Protestant identity, in plays such as White Star of the North and Basra Boy, is very deliberate.
‘I feel that’s probably been neglected in Irish theatre, the Protestant voice. I’m not saying it’s not been addressed at all, because there’s people like Marie Jones, Gary Mitchell and Stewart Parker. I’m just saying that it’s been under-explored, and I do feel a responsibility in myself to actually bring those stories to the forefront.’
It is, according to Jenkinson, not always an easy mission. ‘The thing is, Protestantism has always been profoundly suspicious of theatre. It hasn’t liked it, it hasn’t liked culture. It’s the old religious hang-up of very strict Presbyterianism: let’s look only at what God says, none of that prancing around like pagans on stage. That’s the view.’
Those little local difficulties notwithstanding, Jenkinson will almost certainly return in due course to her interrogation of the Ulster Protestant tradition. For now, though, it’s the new horizons opened up by Planet Belfast that she’s scanning.
These include exciting technical innovations devised by Tinderbox Theatre Company for their staging at The MAC, described by Jenkinson as ‘a big, buzzy place, another big, massive powerhouse of a theatre'.
‘In Planet Belfast there are a lot of locations, but it’s not set in a naturalistic environment. You haven’t got a living room or anything like that. So a series of photographic images is used, not representing the locations, but to give a sense that things are interconnected, the past and future.
‘And they’re also making a set out of fishing wire, believe it or not. So what is going to happen has never been done before, projecting on fishing wire. It’s the type of original thinking Tinderbox is very well known for.’
And what of the play’s title? Is there possibly a touch of playful self-mockery and satire in it? Jenkinson laughs heartily. ‘It’s just my whole idea that Belfast is a crazy, lunatic place,’ she says, ‘where we’re all self-obsessed and on our own little planet, walking around in our own little worlds. That’s what I think!’