Taking Theatre Beyond the Border

Kabosh's latest post-conflict play explores the relationship of RUC and Garda patrol officers stationed on opposite sides of Ireland's dividing line

James Doran and Vincent Higgins

‘In this kind of ethical storytelling the role of the artist is crucial. It is a delicate balancing act, navigating a route between the archivist and the artist, putting on provocative, challenging work while sharing memories with honesty and integrity. When you are dealing with material that is so sensitive, a big question arises about who becomes the creator of the story.’

Paula McFetridge, artistic director of Kabosh, is deep into rehearsal with actors James Doran and Vincent Higgins, picking carefully through the archive of real life memories of serving RUC and An Garda Siochána officers, which forms the basis of Laurence McKeown’s new play Green and Blue. As opening night approaches, McFetridge is exacting and searching, exchanging views and ideas with the actors, questioning the themes and content of the sometimes contentious, sometimes humorous text while being constantly aware of the demands of the audience, many of whom will include past and present members of the respective forces and their families.

‘The play is not about a single story or even a series of single stories,’ she explains. ‘It’s an amalgam of many individual stories, feeding into the central script. The characters are real and rounded, not just because they have emerged from the experiences of real people but because Laurence writes with soul, he creates three dimensional characters with believable back stories. He lets the audience in and allows them to live with the past.’

The play is the most recent addition to Kabosh’s portfolio of post-conflict work. Its staging will combine theatre and film, featuring the work of the talented young film maker and video artist Conan McIvor. The piece was commissioned by Diversity Challenges after a rigorous tendering process, which began with a pledge by the organisation to create a piece of art based on its storytelling project Green and Blue - Across the Thin Line. The project reflects the cooperation and interaction between former members of the Royal Ulster Constabulary and An Garda Síochána who were stationed along the border during the years from the establishment of the two police forces in 1922 up to 2001, when the RUC was replaced by the Police Service of Northern Ireland (PSNI). Diversity Challenges is a member of the International Coalition of Sites of Conscience; its mission is to assist culturally specific groups in integrating community relations principles and considerations into all aspects of their work.

McKeown and Kabosh have a well established partnership. His previous play for the company Those You Pass on the Streets has travelled from Belfast out into the wider world and, most recently, to Rwanda and South Africa, where McFetridge says the audience responses to the shared experiences portrayed on stage were humbling and profound. Once the commission for Green and Blue had been secured writer and director set out on an intensive script development process. A first reading was organised in Cookstown in front of the Board of Diversity Challenges and in August a second reading took place for an invited audience of former and serving officers from the three forces and their families.

‘The greatest challenge is in managing the expectations of those people who shared their stories and in giving them a really positive experience of live performance,’ says McFetridge. ‘The play is something that can be done in any setting but wherever it is seen, its production standards will never be compromised. We are a company which specialises in site-specific work and we hope to stage it in reclaimed RUC and Garda stations along the border, to bring it to as many communities as possible, to give a voice to those who, for all kinds of reasons, have been unheard for so long.’

‘When you travel along the border today, you realise how remote those areas are.  It was even more so back the day, when roads had been blown up so as to deny access. Those officers were totally exposed. They were sitting ducks. Their biggest problems were loneliness and isolation, but lonely and isolated as they all were, the RUC’s situation was worse. It’s amazing how little of that seeped out into the consciousness of the public. It was something that just was not talked about. But the trauma of the experiences remained. Post traumatic stress disorder remains a serious issue - people the world over knew about the effects of the soldiers who served in Vietnam but very little has been acknowledged about those who served on both sides of the Irish border for years at a time.’

The central characters are RUC officer David (Higgins) and Garda officer Eddie (Doran). David is stationed in Roslea, County Fermanagh; Eddie, a Corkman, is based in Glaslough, County Monaghan. There may be only a mile or so between them in distance, but their only means of communication is through unreliable, crackly radios.

The main time focus is the mid to late 1980s, when paramilitary violence was at its height. The two men have patrolled the border for some 20 years but have never met. In personality and demeanour, the contrast between them is marked. Eddie lives with his family in Glaslough, much to the surprise of David, who travels in and out of Roslea in armoured vehicles, while his wife and children are back home in Newcastle. Here he is part of a macho, mainly Protestant, community of men, hardened by their jobs, their confrontation with an invisible foe and their separation from family life. This is their normality. Thus, while David’s focus is entirely on the job in hand, Eddie is more laid back and philosophical, carrying out his work with relaxed good humour. In a particularly amusing exchange, he tries to educate his counterpart about the delights of Gaelic football and hurling, a conversation with which David is reluctant to engage.

‘Fermanagh was a shock to the system,’ observes David. Arriving there in the early '80s, when Bobby Sands had just been elected MP for Fermanagh/South Tyrone, he observes sardonically that it is’ .. definitely not Bangor.’

L McKeown, J Doran & V Higgins

Vincent Higgins, Laurence McKeown and James Doran

Between scenes, the actors discuss the fact that in so many areas of the borderlands, only the farmers knew exactly where the line was drawn. It meandered around fields and moorlands, through forests and across lakes. They laugh at accounts of officers gingerly putting a toe over a cow pat in the middle of a field, looking over their shoulders for fear of being caught committing the criminal act of incursion. One witness account describes jumping across the invisible line with both feet, then leaping back again before some unseen surveillance camera would pick up his act of daring. And while the two forces worked closely together, there are also stories that hint of the suspicion of collusion with paramilitary groups and of the RUC’s unvoiced opinion of Garda Siochána officers' conduct being less than entirely professional.

‘Garda lives were not under threat in the same way that RUC lives were, so the attitude of the members of each force was different,’ explains McFetridge. ‘We have been very mindful though of making sure that the Gards are portrayed as entirely professional and not as stage Irishmen, which is a concern which came up time and time again in discussions. 

‘This is not a period piece, it is not a memory play but we have to be conscious that many of the people who come to see it will be there representing those they worked with, those who are gone. They will bring with them their own memories, many of which will be painful. But as artists, we can’t let that cloud or distort our judgement in making work that is credible and engaging.

One witness account declares: ‘We took on a role that became an identity and that identity now defines us. We’re a uniform, not real people. And rightly or wrongly, we now view the world from that perspective.’   

In turn, McKeown explains that at the core of his play is an attempt to reveal the human beings beneath those uniforms:

'Very often we are defined, and we define others, by the role they play or even the uniform they wear. And yet we all have lives, families, loves, desires and dreams. Others are oblivious to them and often we ourselves suppress them. And maybe to survive it is safer to do so.’

Green and Blue opens in Girdwood Cultural Hub off the Antrim Road in Belfast on October 21 as part of the Ulster Bank Belfast International Arts Festival, then tours to Newry, Omagh, Monaghan, Newtownards, Dublin, Strabane, Dundalk, Cavan and Derry~Londonderry. For tickets and more information visit www.kabosh.net.