Sam Millar on New Play Brothers in Arms

Belfast crime novelist and former republican prisoner on his new play about 'the elephant in the room' – the dissidents  

Sam Millar, the multi-award-winning novelist, has emerged as one of Northern Ireland's most popular authors. Drawing on his experiences as a former IRA prisoner, Millar has penned five novels. He has also written a best-selling autobiography, On the Brinks, detailing the infamous 1993 Brink's robbery in New York.

Now Millar is launching his debut play, exploring the divisions in modern-day republicanism. Brothers in Arms, directed by Martin Lynch, begins a lengthy tour of Northern Ireland this month. True to form, the maverick writer hasn't taken the easy option.

The hard-hitting work confronts what is for many 'the elephant in the room' – the dissidents. Millar says he hasn't encountered any hostility to the controversial subject matter, yet. 'Once the play has been staged, and word gets out about it, then we’ll have to wait and see,' he smiles. 'But no one should be afraid of this play. They should welcome it.'

Brothers in Arms is set in the home of the Mullan brothers – one a dissident republican, the other a Sinn Féin MLA – on the day of their father’s funeral. The play explores the resentments, strife and secrets that surface in this volatile environment. It is about the legacy of the Troubles for those who served time in prison, and their families.

Yet, Millar says, 'It is not simply a "political" play. It is about a family torn apart by events they may have created in the past, but ultimately can no longer control. At the end of the day, no matter what our political differences may be, we always return to family.'

Brothers in Arms opens on January 27 and 28 with two discounted performances at St Kevin’s Hall in north Belfast, a decision that was important to local boy Millar. 'It lets the community know that "one of their own" has not forgotten his roots,' he says, while also stressing that Brothers in Arms is open to all. 'It will be perfect for those with little knowledge of what is going on in nationalist and republican areas.' 

After the previews, the production moves to Belfast's Waterfront Studio for a three-week run, before touring the country. 'It's daunting but exciting,' Millar says. 'Because of its universal theme of Cain and Abel, I’m hoping it will be warmly welcomed wherever it goes. It’s a very strong and emotional play, and worthy of people’s hard-earned money.'

Miller with cast and producer Martin Lynch

Directed by Lynch and boasting the acting talents of BJ Hogg, Tony Devlin, Helena Bereen and Jimmy Doran, Brothers in Arms is audacious. 'I have to give credit to Martin Lynch and all at Green Shoot Productions for having faith in my ability as a writer,' Millar says.

'Martin has a very keen eye, and is quite clear on how he wants things to appear on the stage. The cast are terrific. It is frightening and at times overwhelming to see them take your words and make them their own.'

Brothers in Arms is the first instalment in Green Shoot's Ulster Trilogy, which asks three key questions: Who is winning in the Catholic community, Sinn Féin or the dissidents? Is the Protestant community disintegrating after 30 years of the Troubles? And how should we deal with the pain of victims?

Millar says he 'can't wait' until the rest of the trilogy emerges. 'The question of what is happening in the Protestant community will be very interesting on a personal level. I am in a unique position, because my grandfather was a proud Orangeman, who witnessed all his sons becoming Catholics. I think there may well be another play there!'

As for the recent spate of Troubles movies – Fifty Dead Men Walking, Five Minutes of Heaven et al – Millar is dismissive. 'I find most of them lacking authenticity,' he shrugs, reserving praise for just one film. 'I remember reluctantly sitting down to watch Hunger, not really knowing what to expect. Within minutes, I was totally hypnotised. It was so authentic, I could hardly watch. It affected me for days.

'The best movie ever made of the hunger strike, and it took an Englishman to have the courage to make it. Steve McQueen has outdone anything ever before to come this way, though I doubt we’ll see someone from "outside" matching his telling eye for detail and authenticity again.'

Not everyone is passionate about art based around the Troubles, however. At a recent talk in Belfast, the American novelist Lionel Shriver, who lived in Northern Ireland for 12 years, expressed disappointment that the public are still consuming fare concerning the conflict. She suggested we should 'move on'.

Perhaps surprisingly, considering Brothers in Arms' topic matter, Millar agrees. 'I think writers who base their books on the Troubles are either lazy or simply lack imagination. They should be avoided like the proverbial plague. All my novels are set in Belfast, with no mention of the past per se.'

Millar's own past, from 'blanket man' in the Maze H-Blocks to dealing with the American Mafia, seems tailor-made for the cinema screen. In fact, the movie rights to On the Brinks were bought by Warner Bros. Sean Penn was in the frame to play Millar. Unfortunately, the project was dropped after the film company came under pressure from the second Bush administration.

'In a way, it was a good thing, because I saw the intended script and it was the biggest load of crap I had seen in a very long time,' Millar says. Having broken his playwright duck with Brothers in Arms, maybe Millar will write the script himself. He seems open to the idea, as long as he can get the 'terrific Jeremy Renner' to play him.

Brothers in Arms previews at St Kevin's Hall, Belfast, on January 27 and 28. Contact the box office on 028 9029 1555. To find out about other showings go to CultureNorthernIreland's What's On guide.